Process 082 ☼ How I Started My Career as a Professional Photographer
GIVEAWAY: $150 gift certificate for Moment
Happy New Year everyone! This week’s letter is part one in a series in which I look back at ten years of being a photographer, plus and the lessons I learned.
This week also marks the return of the PROCESS GIVEAWAY with a generous $150 gift certificate to spend in the Moment shop, on film, accessories, cameras, etc.
Before The Beginning (Pre-2013)
I did not plan on becoming a photographer. In 2013 I was knee-deep into a music career that started at an early age in New York City. I worked at record labels, wrote songs, produced albums, managed artists, promoted concerts, and more.
There were many special moments during this time. One of the most exciting was watching Steve Jobs introduce the first iPad while the opening notes of a song I executive produced and released on my own record label started playing.
It was an amazing time and my only regret is that I hadn’t found my passion for photography yet. If I could go back to those years I’d have a camera with me at all times to take portraits of all the amazing artists I met from Pharrell to Sufjan Stevens.
Occasionally I found myself on stage with the Wu Tang Clan or backstage with Busta Rhymes and I did take some snap shots but it was always an afterthought. I was focused on music and music alone.
The Beginning (2013)
Around 2013 I started to get a bit burned out on the relentless pace and instability of working in the music industry. That’s when I started to lean into photography as a new form of creative expression and a way to connect to people outside of music.
I remember the first time I got up the nerve to ask strangers on the street if I could take their picture during the SxSW music conference. They were sitting on a wall in Austin and looked straight from a Jim Jarmush film. They said yes. It was such a thrill.
Taking these pictures made me feel very much alive in a way that working in music hadn’t in a while and it planted the seed for what was to come.
The Beginning - 2014/2015
As the music business burn out got worse I decided to make some changes in my life. I hadn’t taken the time to travel at all during my music days because all my work was in New York City. I decided that I wanted to see more of the United States, especially at a time when so many creative friends were leaving New York City for cheaper places like Nashville, Detroit, and New Orleans.
I was curious about these cities and their creative communities that my friends were moving to. New York City was getting increasingly expensive but I had the feeling there had to be something else that pushed these wonderful creatives out. Could it be that the creative communities of these other places offered something else?
The confluence of this curiosity and my newfound love for photography as a hobby to express myself led me to make a list of twelve interesting creative cities in the US to visit. My plan was to do my music work from my laptop at a local coffee shop and to meet interesting creatives and take their portrait during my down time.
It’s important that you know that at this point I had no plans to switch from working in music to working as a photographer. Simply because I didn’t even know it was an option. Frankly, I didn’t even set out for this to be “photography project”. It was just my way of getting to meet interesting kind creatives and getting to know these cities through their people. But it happened to get way out of hand, in a good way.
A few months into traveling I started to cram my coffee shop music work into smaller windows of time so I could meet and photograph more people. It was fascinating to get a peek into these incredible humans’ lives, document their generosity and craft, and share it with friends through social media. I had not felt this alive, probably, ever.
I was learning so much about taking pictures and what was happening in the zeitgeist. Getting to know a city through its most creative people helped me understand why they decided to move away from cities like New York and come here.
After visiting Charleston as my third city I was so inspired by everyone’s story that I decided it would be a shame to keep all that inspiration for myself. During this time the economy was recovering from a big recession and the resulting lay-offs left people disillusioned about the idea of working for big companies. The trade-off between job security and professional self-determination seemed out of wack now that job security was shown to be a bit of a mirage for many people.
I wanted to do my small part in inspiring more people to start their own small creative business by showcasing all these stories of people who had successfully done so. My selection was intentionally diverse with old and young, various backgrounds and genders, etc. so that most anyone would be able to recognize themselves in at least one story. I called it One of Many to tell people who aspired to start their own creative career and small business that they were not alone but were in fact part of a big group. At the same time my goal was to bring attention to the folks I was photographing to help them spread the word on their beautiful work.
My First Sponsorship
The next thing that happened was an example of great timing and luck. I had lunch with a friend who worked at Squarespace. He was someone who knew me as the music guy (like everyone else at the time). We were catching up on what each of us had been working on without much of an agenda and I shared that my heart and attention was being drawn away from music and in the direction of storytelling through pictures and writing. I told him about One of Many and he was intrigued.
I hadn’t yet started publishing the project outside of Instagram so I showed him some of the stories on my laptop. I hadn’t made the connection yet in my head but the creatives I was showcasing and the people I was hoping to inspire were pretty much exactly the target audience for Squarespace.
The project’s mission and the company mission were also aligned and the cultural moment provided the perfect backdrop for a project like One of Many. He thought there was opportunity to support the project with a sponsorship to offset my travel and lodging cost and over the course of a few weeks we figured that out.
This incredible opportunity meant I could really start producing this project in earnest and go to cities I didn’t have any friends in yet like Savannah and Nashville to round out the set of twelve cities. It also meant I could go into overdrive and photograph and interview around fifty creatives per city so the project would have the gravitas and diversity of more than 600 people and their stories.
I also partnered with Stitch Design, now SDCO Partners, an amazing design company that I met in Charleston and they designed branding and a website for the project.
Once Squarespace came on board I took the opportunity to pitch other companies to help make it all work. Mailchimp came on board to sponsor two of the city trips as well, Lyft gave me a credit as a sponsorship so I could get around some of the cities more easily, Karma gave me the ability to use a WiFi hotspot everywhere, and WeTransfer helped spread the word further about the project. Let me re-emphasize none of this was planned. There was no strategy beforehand. But once there was an opportunity I did jump on it to help bring this project into the world.
I was also still making just enough money to pay for rent and food from the 8-10 years of work I put into the music industry, which enabled me to dream and follow my curiosity once the project took shape and the sponsors came on board.
A few months into this project I started getting my first inquiries from potential clients who liked the style of photo and the diversity of stories and people I was documenting. This resulted in some of my first little client jobs, some paid, others unpaid. Below is a portrait of writer Jenna Wortham that I took for Pi.co in 2014.
This is also when the portrait addiction took hold completely and I would meet up with friends and colleagues to take their portrait, like my friend and singular talent Yumna Al-Arashi posing in front of my local Brooklyn supermarket.
Some of my favorite online publications like It’s Nice That and Booooooom kindly covered the project which helped spread the word further, and even iconic food magazine Saveur commissioned a set of portraits from One of Many under the banner “Portraits from the New South”. It was a whirlwind of work and pitching and excitement.
This project, unintentionally, kicked off my career as a photographer even to the point where what I do these days is effectively the same thing I was hired for back then: environmental portraits of interesting people. I will talk about what came after in another issue soon.
Follow your curiosity whenever possible.
Sharing what you’re passionate about with anyone who is interested can lead to great things. Even if the project isn’t fully formed yet.
If you have another form of income while pursuing your passion for photography it will help give you runway and reduce stress. Relying on freelance photography is challenging even many years into a career, but especially at the start.
Our camera is a passport that allows us to travel into other people’s lives. This also brings with it a significant responsibility to portray them authentically.
Putting out work consistently helps it get noticed more than once in a while.
You will only get hired for the work you put out into the world, because that’s how people know what you have experience with.
If your work is aligned with a cultural moment it can lead to interesting attention.
I shot this entire project with one camera body (Canon 5D Mark III) and one lens (35mm Sigma). That is enough.
Process 060 is all about how to pitch your work.
That’s it for this week! The next time I bring back this look-back series I’ll talk about how these initial client jobs led to my first travel magazine clients and what I learned.
Next week: My latest story for National Geographic Traveller, about Amsterdam, and how that relationship came about.
Keep shooting and take good care of yourselves and others.
PS After years of only posting to Stories I have started posting to my Instagram feed again, every day so far in 2023. Check it out at @wesley.
PPS You already know this but all my film work is developed and scanned by my friends at Carmencita Film Lab. Use code “PROCESS” at check out to get a free size upgrade.
My pals over at Moment are back for a wonderful giveaway! One winner will receive a $150 giftcard so you can buy whatever you wish whether it is film, bags, an online course, or anything else from the Moment store.
To enter this Moment Giveaway share your thoughts in the comment section for this issue and answer this question:
When did you first start taking pictures and what motivated you to start?
My answer: I started taking pictures when I was very young, maybe 6 years old, because it was my dad’s hobby and it meant spending quality time with him.
ENTER THIS WEEK’S GIVEAWAY before 11am EST on January 29th.
The winner will be randomly drawn. This giveaway is for Process subscribers only.
Major shout out to my friends at Moment for sponsoring this giveaway. Check out their webshop for all your photo needs.
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Somewhere in the early 90s I was playing with my parents camera, an old soviet tank. Eventually I broke it because I was trying to understand how it works. Sorry dad...Then a few disposable cameras in teenagehood and then a sudden stop. Fast forward 20 years later I wanted to get into photography and a friend told me to get a 35mm to play around. That was it, in love with photography and my Olympus om1 :)
Great question Wesley. I got into photography when my grandmother gifted me her Twin Lens Reflex camera when I turned 16. I bought some film for it, got it developed, and I was hooked. I still dabble with film but I have mainly moved over to digital.