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When Dreams Come True in Photography

Today I’d like to share how a chance encounter provided perspective on both success and the value of patience.

The time had come. The moment of truth. That beautiful moment at the end of a shoot when a normally introverted guy with a penchant for low talking gets to loudly exclaim to a room full of people: “That’s a wrap!”

Of course, this wasn’t a room. It was a parking lot to be exact. More specifically, it was a rather large parking lot in the middle of Downtown Los Angeles. One rented for our production, and currently littered with motorhomes, dressing rooms, caterers, ad agency executives, client executives, Olympians, world record holders, and all manor in between.

It was the end of a second day of shooting an ad campaign that took a month to plan. It was large, sprawling, expensive, and pretty darn impressive if you looked at it from the outside, if I might say so in hindsight. But, at that moment, I was less concerned with the grandness of the moment and more concerned with finishing the project strong. Any photoshoot, whether an ad campaign or organizing a family photo, can be a bit of a high wire act. When given the chance to once again calmly rest one’s feet on solid ground, the inevitable gargantuan exhale is a joy that never gets old.

Of course there was one more photo to take. Except that, in this case, I would be stepping in front of the camera alongside a few dozen other members of cast and crew while my producer called out on her walkie-talkie to have an assistant come out to snap a shot. The classic wrap photo. A quick memory for all those present that days like this actually exist.

So, there I was, with my arms slung over the shoulders of my clients, who were previously strangers but now felt like childhood friends, and that’s when it happened. Answering the producer’s call, a man came ambling out of one of the trailers. His eyes on a swivel, his hand outstretched as my producer handed him her cellphone with a brief tutorial on how to take a picture.

But it wasn’t the movement of the man that caught my attention. It was his face. That unforgettable face. Long and narrow. Beard always trimmed to a perfect length. When he walked, his gait was that of an athlete. An undeniable bounce in his step.

As the man rose the camera to face us, and I put on my best grin, my mind couldn’t shake the revelation. “Wait, is that Steve?”

I suppose I should back up just a moment to explain.

As I would expect many of you to relate to, getting to the point in my career where my crew is big enough that there are people on set that I may never meet isn’t something that happened overnight. It’s been a long, long process and one that continues. Reaching your goals, whether professional or personal, is hard work. It takes dedication. It takes risk. And, above all, it takes time.

For nearly 13 years, much of my time was split between learning how to take a photograph and wasting away at a dead-end job that I hated. Every incremental photographic achievement was tempered by a return to a job that was sucking the life out of me. Each hour of artistic joy was matched by a week of unhappiness as I sat behind a desk in an office literally surrounded by a cage. As much as I dreamt of artistic success, my reality at the moment made me far more likely to believe that this dead-end job would be my destiny. As bad as I wanted out, I can’t really say that I truly believed I would ever escape.  

It would be years before I learned to take ownership over my own life and take the risks to convert dream into reality. But at that time, I was locked in the continuous rut of standing behind a glass window, handing out paychecks to company employees after carefully scrutinizing their credentials.

True, I was working at a major motion picture studio. That may sound exciting, but, given my position, it was really just a more upscale nightmare. Yet still, it meant that most of the people I was handing checks to were various crew members on major motion pictures and major television shows. From writers to grip and electric, I handed out millions of payments over the course of those 13 years. Literally. Mostly to familiar faces. Men like Steve. One of many faces that I got to know so well that I no longer needed to check their ID when they arrived to pick up their paycheck.

I toiled away on that job for years. Driving into the lot each morning past the designer motorhomes, the large sound stages, the bevy of crew members discussing the day’s work or, more likely, what they were planning to do after it. I often imagined that even the bottom rung of that ladder must be better than the job I was in. But, again, I never even dared to dream that I would even reach that point.

So last week, when I saw Steve walk out to take the picture, I couldn’t help but to feel a sense of cosmic relief. The world had somehow come full circle. I’d spent so much of my life with the false belief that my life was already over. That I’d peaked at a dead-end job. That my dreams were destined to stay just that.

But here I stood, after a great deal of hard work and sacrifice, and now those motorhomes that I used to drive by with envy were now there for me. Downtown L.A., one of the busiest parts of one of the biggest cities in the world, was a place that always seemed beyond reach. Sure I’d go to do a little street shooting, but the prospect of ever mounting a production on its crowded streets was not something I expected to experience. But there I was with half the city permitted off just for my shoot. And an old friend whose job I used to covet, was now for all intents and purposes, one of my employees.

I don’t relate this story to brag. This was a pretty huge gig and not something that happens every day. For all I know, it may be that last of its kind.  

But I wanted to share the experience with you because it was a reminder to me that dreams really can come true. It’s a reminder that no matter where you are in your life right now, whatever suffering and doubt you may be experiencing is only temporary.

When I was trapped in that dead-end job, I never truly believed that a day like this would ever happen outside of my own imagination. But I kept working to improve my craft. I kept working to improve my business. I tried best I could to improve as a human being. And then one day I woke up to my dream as a reality.

It wasn’t a matter of hours. It wasn’t a matter of weeks. It wasn’t even just a matter of a couple years. It was well over a decade of putting in the effort despite not always getting the result. It was years trying to convince myself to believe in myself. It was doing the hard work of reminding myself every day that dreams do come true.

So do yourself a favor and remind yourself that dreams come true. That well of ambition that you feel deep inside that is pointing you in an undeniable direction, with effort and time, know that you can reach your goals also. It may not happen as quickly as you may want. There may be times when it feels like it will never happen. But, if you stick with it, one day you may also find yourself looking up and saying, “Wait, is that Steve?”

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Tony Clark's picture

Congratulations! It is the best feeling isn't it? I too spent a longtime on other jobs like assisting and restaurants before I had consistent projects.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

It's surreal, but fantastic. :-)

Andy Barnham's picture

I try and keep in touch with all previous assistants I've had a connection with. If they ever need an assistant (they rarely actually ask) I always jump to volunteer as the role reversal gives me a kick.

Austin Williams's picture

This happened to us at Adventure Wedding Photography the last couple months. Such a great feeling! :)

Christopher Malcolm's picture

So great when the stars line up.