What does photography mean to you? In this article, I share my story about how photography changed my life and my journey as an artist. See my ups, my downs, and see what it took me to get where I am today.
It's that time of the year again. All of our friends are doing their 2018 in review or posting their top nines on Instagram. The notebooks open, the pens start clicking, and we reflect on our ups and downs of the previous year and look forward to a new 2019. However, as 2018 comes to a close, my gears run a little differently. This year, I chose to reflect on my entire career as a photographer and reminisce on the journey I embarked on just seven short years ago.
The Beginning: Where It All Started
When we dig through our archives of old work, it's sometimes hard to look at. But the fact is, we all started somewhere. When we look at the work of the great artists in history, it is easy to say "I can never accomplish that level of work," but we often forget, they were standing in our same shoes when they first started.
My journey to becoming an artist began in 2012, when I started my freshman year at a charter film school. For four years, I attended G-Star School of The Arts, where my passions for photography and filmmaking were ignited. I remember sitting in my first film class, having never picked up a camera in my life, and a few days later, I made my first short film. I remember falling in love with the process of creating something with the camera. After I completed the project, my teacher came over to me and said: "hey, you got a good eye, kid. You should consider doing this as your profession. I think you've got a future in it". After hearing that, it clicked. From that point on, I decided that I wanted to do work with my camera for the rest of my life. I then, in the second week of school, emptied my bank account and bought my first camera.
How I Discovered My Passion for Portrait Photography
When I got my first camera, I was enamored by the beauty the world has to offer. I captured everything under the sun: macro photos of flowers, photos of the beach near my house, corporate events, and portraits. I have to admit, though: I tended to capture nature-related scenes, avoiding anything to do with people.
Before I picked up a camera, I was very shy and timid. As I was shooting my way through the process and garnering a love for the art form, I started taking self portraits. I photographed myself, because I was the only one I felt comfortable confronting or speaking with. It wasn't until I came across this wise woman named Lynda at a dinner my family was having. Lynda was one of the first people I ever showed my self portraits too, and she would often give me advice on how to improve my work. However, one thing she told me really stuck with me, and still does to this day. She pulled me aside and said:
If you’re focusing on capturing others, you must learn how to photograph yourself first. Find out who you are as a person. Figure out what makes you click. Discover your strengths and your weaknesses.
When I first started capturing self portraits, it was just me staring into the camera with expressionless faces and eyes. But, after hearing Lynda's advice that night, I internalized it, and from then on, I committed to sitting down every weekend for four hours to just photograph myself.
Over the course of the next six months, I slowly began to become more comfortable, not only with photography, but with who I was as a person. The camera soon became my strongest and most distinguished voice. It served as the tool for how I expressed myself, and it was by my side during the blissful moments, like winning awards, and the darkest ones, like on my hospital bed when my lung collapsed. After nearly six months of just photographing myself, I gained enough confidence to start photographing portraits of other people.
When I was just beginning to find my voice and discover my passion for portrait photography, it was important for me to reference the iconic artists that came before me and learn what made them so great. Some of my biggest inspirations were artists like Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, and Steve McCurry. I was able to dissect each artist's work and takes bits and pieces that later crafted my style. I was drawn to Richard Avdedon's work because of the unique way he connected with his subjects and how he drew out raw, unguarded emotions from them. I remember watching his documentary, "Lightness and Darkness," over a dozen times and being blown away each time. The next person that inspired me was Annie Leibovitz. I looked up to her ability and willingness to be creative and create memorable photographs that were unique to her. Last was the iconic work of Steve Mcurry. I referenced McCurry's work to gain an appreciation for ingenious compositions and how to find a harmonious balance in the frame using colors.
The Moment It Clicked
For months, I would intensely research my inspirations and discover what made a great image, but it wasn't until one day, a copy of the National Geographic Photo Issue arrived at my doorstep. The moment I saw Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl," her eyes pierced through the page and right at me. I was profoundly moved by the way the eyes drew me in and how he was able to capture people and bring out the best in the people he was photographing.
With that in the back of my mind, I took my black mattress out from underneath my bed, and set it up on my back porch, and made a make shift portrait studio. I setup my Canon T4i, 50mm kit lens, and used the sun with a big window as my only light. When I took the one picture that kickstarted my career in this setup, the realization hit me: I didn't need the most expensive or modern gear to capture captivating portraits, all I needed was my camera, my passion, and my desire to bring out the beauty in every person I photograph.
The moment I realized that the gear was not the thing that was holding me back from creating great work, I devoted every hour of my free time I had to improve my craft. I did dozens of shoots a month, countless hours scouring the web for tutorials on lighting, Photoshop, and everything photography-related, and then went out and applied the lessons I was learning online to my shoots. Action was the key proponent that was moving my work forward. By the time I had reached 2015, I looked back and noticed I had put in over 1,000 hours into photography that year. I then had the realization that this was just the beginning. It was truly humbling to see how much work I put in, but how far I still had to go.
After a year of hard work, It dawned on me. There is no such thing as an overnight success. To be great, you just have to put in the damn work and do it consistently. It is said that it takes 10,000 hours to master your craft, but I feel that once you reach 10,000 hours, that is just the beginning of the journey.
Each year, I would look back on all of the shoots I did that year and would compare the last shot I took to the first photo I ever took in my career. Although the progress seemed substantial, I realized that the key to growth as an artist is to never be complacent with your work. That attitude carried me through the countless failed shoots, as I was only as good as the last shoot I did, and there was always the next photo to take. This mindset gave me the confidence to creating progressively better work year after year.
My Defining Moment as an Artist
How long was it before you first got recognition for your work? For me, it took me four years. Four years of shooting daily, failing countless times, and sleepless nights following my passion before anybody really saw my work. When I started shooting, I would constantly ask myself: "if nobody saw my work, would I still keep shooting?" And the answer was always a resounding yes. In my junior year of high school, I was walking to my next class, and the school callboard caught my attention. There stood a massive, colorful poster from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards (an arts and writing completion for high school students). That day, I submitted six of my favorite images to the competition and didn't know what to expect. To my surprise, a few weeks later, I got an email from Scholastic informing me that I had won two gold medals at the national level and was invited to an exhibition and ceremony at Carnegie Hall. So, I hopped on a plane to New York City, and I was overflowing with emotions. I didn't know what to expect. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened that memorable weekend. It would change my life forever.
When I went to check in, I noticed that not only did the picture win a gold medal, but the portrait was on their cover and printed in over 10,000 copies that would be distributed around the country that year. I was in awe when I saw it. Still shocked, a few moments later, the director of the organization pulled out the May 29 issue of The New York Times, and there the photo was. A full-page spread in The New York Times. That moment, I broke down in tears and couldn't hold back my emotions. For the first time since the beginning of this journey, it felt like all the blood, sweat, and tears were finally paying off. Someone believed in my vision and my work and validated my dream of becoming an artist. I came to New York City a photographer and left as an artist. I flew home inspired and ready to create the best work I have ever done, and that's exactly what I did. It's moments like these that move us forward as artists, and I am so humbled to The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for giving me a voice I never knew I had.
Finding a Purpose in My Work
With a strong support system and work ethic under my belt, I felt as if I were creating good images: they were well exposed and the connection with the subject was there, but there was something missing to tie it all together. The missing piece to the puzzle was a purpose, a purpose of what I wanted to do with my work. The more I shot, the more I realized that there is more to photography than just taking pictures. There is the person behind the camera.
When I graduated high school in 2016, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world through my pictures, but I didn't know how. That was when I was fortunate enough to land a gig as a head videographer at a special needs summer camp called Camp HASC. I was able to work there for past three years, and they were the most formative years for my work that I could ever asked for. During those three years, I discovered the message I want to convey to the world through my work, that is: to shine a light on the people who are making a difference in the world and capture the beauty in every person.
Doing Personal Projects
Throughout my career, taking on client projects definitely helped me pay the bills, but it often served as a roadblock in my personal discovery and stunted my creative spark. Ever since my senior year, I started doing projects that share my voice and my visions with the world. The goals of these projects were to help show the amazing people and stories they have to tell the world. I started doing these initiatives during my senior year of high school. The first series I did was called "The Faces of G-Star". In this project, I photographed 365 portraits during the last four weeks of my high school career and brought together my community through photography. It all amounted to an exhibition displayed in the hallways of the school.
I also used personal projects as a way to stay inspired and keep innovating. In January of 2018, I started a series called "A Century of Portraits," where I pushed my creativity to new limits. I captured portraits from every decade from the 1920s until now, using 20 lighting setups and building 20 different sets. This was my longest and most intense project I ever did. It taught me to never give up on my dreams, no matter how crazy they seem.
To encapsulate a seven-year journey, I conjured up a few lessons that I have learned to live by every day.
The first is to just keep shooting. I discovered that the more I shoot, the more I fail, and the more I fail, the more I learn. I have always lived by this notion ever since I started taking pictures. When I am shooting photos or creating art, I am myself, and without it, I feel like there is something missing from me. This past year, being a full-time college student taking 18 credits, a writer for Fstoppers, and running my own business, I still made time to do over 75 shoots, paid or unpaid, just to keep the creative fire burning.
Secondly, I learned that you should never be complacent with your work and that you are only as good as your last shoot. Using this mentality, it has driven me to create work that I could never had imagined I would be doing and keeps me getting better consistently. If I had been satisfied with one award or great photo, my career would have ended in 2015.
Lastly, if you want to succeed in this industry, you must stay true to who you are. There’s no one that can do it better than yourself. Being unique and true to yourself is the one determining factor that will set your work stand out from the rest. The only competition you have is yourself and being the best you could be. Don't waste your energy focusing on someone else's dreams, go out and conquer yours.
Photography is more than just taking pictures, its a neverending process of self-discovery, accomplishments, and failures. So, in the spirit of the new year, look back at your old pictures and see how far you have come since the beginning. Photography, to me, means never giving up on dreams, having the persistence to keep shooting , and a vision to change the world one photo at a time. What does photography mean to you? How has it changed your life? Share your experiences in the comments below.