First of all, thanks to Scott and Brad for giving me this opportunity. It’s always an honor to be a guest blogger here. And last time I blogged here, some amazing things happened. More on that later.
I wanted to chat this time about a growing concern I’ve had lately. I’ve been noticing from a few people that follow my work over the last couple years that seem misunderstood in their perception of who I am as a photographer or more importantly, how hard I’ve worked to succeed in the first place and how hard I’m still working. They seem to think that I’ve arrived at some magical destination in photography land where I just sit back and watch the jobs roll in. But more alarmingly, they seem to think the same thing is going to happen for them too. I see it all the time and it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating because they have the talent but they don’t have the drive or motivation. They seem to think that their amazing talent is going to do all the work for them. And sadly, that’s just not the case. Maybe it used to be that way but it’s not that way anymore.
I recently heard an assistant (24 years old) mocking a 30-something year old wedding photographer. He said, “Man, how terrible. I’ll never be 33 years old and still shooting weddings.” Needless to say, this did not sit well with me. (First of all, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a wedding photographer – it’s a great career path if that’s what you’re passionate about– but that’s another conversation altogether). I respect this guy so much & want to see him succeed as a photographer, too. So I couldn’t help but ask him, “Well, what are you doing to prevent that from happening? You never shoot anything. You never do tests or build your book. You sit around and complain and don’t do ANYTHING to proactively pursue your photo career.” Maybe you’re like this assistant. Maybe it’s time to take that next step… no matter what it takes. I know you’re busy. I know you’re probably broke. But enough excuses already. I see photographers rising above the surface and making things happen for themselves all the time. It is possible for you.
I wanted to share some stories about my career and steps I have taken to move things forward. Some of them are for my career and some of them are just ways I’ve chosen to give back to the community. But either way, I just love to make things happen. Perhaps some of these stories will give you ideas on how to move your career forward.
I started my photography career in April 2005. In May of 2005 some friends were going to Africa and invited me to join them. I was anxious to learn about what was happening so I took my camera and joined them. That ended up being a month-long journey through South Africa and parts of Kenya. After I got back I showed a friend who ran a publishing company called Relevant Magazine. We talked about how cool it would be to turn those images into a book. The next thing I know, my first book “Hope in the Dark” was being designed and printed within the first few months of being a photographer.
Fast forward to later that summer…. After my agent found me later that summer (Yes, I got lucky on that one), she started taking me around LA to meet with all the TV networks. One of my first meetings was with E! Entertainment Networks. I was going in for a typical portfolio review but decided to take my new Africa book with me. It was an odd thing for an entertainment photographer to be lugging around a photojournalism book but I thought it would be different enough and might just give them something to remember me by. Sure enough, it worked. They loved my eye for reportage work and they had been looking for someone who could take good pictures without all the lights and huge setups. (Thankfully though, they liked my “lit” setups too.) Next thing I know, I was documenting shows for them and still work with them regularly to this day… all because I decided to be different and show my Africa work. (For the record, it was never my intention to use or exploit the people of Africa for my own gain. But sometimes pursuing projects you’re genuinely passionate about can have nice rewards whether you asked for them or not.)
In 2006 I became a fan of a band called Frou Frou after hearing their song on a movie soundtrack. I heard that the lead singer, Imogen Heap, was on Flickr so I sent her a message telling her I wanted to work with her. The next time she was playing a show in Nashville I reached out again and we did our first shoot together. Thankfully she loved the results from that first shoot (first image below) and we’ve done 3 shoots since… one in Los Angeles and 2 at her home in London. The photos in her latest album packaging, Ellipse, came from these photo sessions…
In 2007, I asked my client CMT if I could shoot portraits of the artists backstage at the CMT Awards. They liked the idea and OK! Magazine ended up running all the portraits. Two of the artists just happened to be very new names to country music… Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift.
The shoot with Carrie led to more photo shoots later down the road and a solid relationship with her management who manage many other great artists.
I took Taylor’s image, put a new background around her and sold the image to Getty images which immediately flew off the shelves to all the teen magazines.
Early in my career, Sony hired me to shoot a live concert for a Trumpet player named Chris Botti. Botti had several guests that night including Sting. My art director told me that they didn’t need headshots of the guests and that they wouldn’t have time for pictures. I decided to secretly set up my lights backstage just in case a moment arrived. As I was hanging backstage, Sting was standing around looking bored so I asked him if I could borrow him for a few minutes for some photos. Thankfully he agreed. I’ve never been so starstruck. We talked for a bit while we took photos and I have no idea what we talked about, I was so nervous. But to this day, everywhere I go, people say “What was it like shooting Sting?” It’s one of the most important chances I’ve taken to move my career forward. One big name in your book can do wonders.
In 2009, I was asked to tour with Britney Spears on her Circus Tour as her concert photographer. I had been documenting the shows night in and night out but was never really getting great access to Britney herself. So on the very last night of being on the road, I asked, pleaded and begged if I could document her behind the scenes for the entire show. Thankfully they agreed and the result was amazing. We had a blast working together and more importantly we got some great images. They immediately ran a huge spread in People Magazine featuring the photos from that night.
Now, for the 2 most meaningful and impacting events of my career…
Later in 2009, Brad and Scott asked me to be a guest blogger here at ScottKelby.com. I asked if I could push an idea that had been brewing for a while. I followed Zack Arias’s lead and launched a video. In it, I explained the idea for Help-Portrait. The idea was to encourage photographers worldwide to spend one day over Christmas doing free portraits for people in need. With the additional help via blogging from Chase Jarvis, Zack Arias and Vincent Laforet, the idea was launched. If you can, take a few minutes and watch what happened below. The results of the photo community coming together to help others was simply mind-numbing. (This video collage is brand new by the way… appropriately debuting on this blog post!)
When the earthquake hit Haiti in January of this year, like everyone else, I was very overwhelmed with the devastation and wanted to help immediately- but I didn’t know how. I wanted to go down there right away but didn’t have a good reason too. I didn’t want to just add to the sea of photojournalists. Finally I realized what was missing. The media wasn’t portraying the human part of the story. They were just running shock and awe campaigns featuring dead bodies and crumbled buildings. I wanted to hear from the people. “What were they thinking” I wondered. So with the help of some incredible friends, I traveled down just shy of 2 weeks after the earthquake and did my own photo essay called Voices of Haiti. The idea was simple. Take some art supplies to Haiti and let people write their thoughts on found pieces of rubble. I compared it to visual tweets. We’re able to express ourselves at any given time. Why shouldn’t they be able to?? The result was overwhelming to hear such hope, creativity and intelligence among such devastation.
A few weeks after I’d been home and had shown the photos, I was asked to display my photos at a UN conference in New York. Our nation’s government, the Haitian government and many world leaders were meeting to discuss the restoration of Haiti. The Haitian government had recently taken a poll among the people of Haiti on how they wanted their country rebuilt, and on that day at the UN, they were to discuss the results of the poll and how Haiti should be rebuilt. As they walked into the main hallway of the UN Conference leading into the meeting, the Voices of Haiti images were on display along the way. They ended up pledging 10 billion dollars that day to rebuild Haiti. The voices were heard. Photography made a difference.
I haven’t told you these stories to brag or to pat my own back. I only use them to illustrate that this industry is tough. But if you’re motivated and wiling to do the work, amazing things can happen. I’ve achieved a lot in 5 years but I don’t make a habit of looking back. I prefer to look forward. I just moved my family to LA temporarily and I’m trying to have the mindset that I’ve started over. I’m back at square one and have to prove myself all over again. It keeps me grounded. It keeps me motivated. And it keeps me excited.
So… what’s YOUR next step?