Some children dream of becoming astronauts or movie stars when they grow up. My dreams were a little different: I wanted to tell stories with images and see them printed in magazines and on billboards, but it wasn’t until I was a senior in high school when I started dreaming about this. I wanted to be a photographer because to me there was something magical about seeing the images I took printed on the pages of a magazine, or high up on a billboard.
I graduated from photography school and moved to New York City in August of 2002 to start working as a photo assistant with the dream of eventually becoming a commercial photographer. Trying to find an apartment when you have no real job prospects, a bunch of student debt, credit card debt, bad credit, and you tell people you do photography for a living it isn’t easy. After some searching and some luck I found a quaint little third floor walkup studio apartment in Brooklyn, which would become my new workspace and home for years to come.
The first step in my quest was to find work as a photo assistant. In school I learned that we should mail resumes, send promo cards, and cold call photographers to get work. This sounded like a good plan, so I spent my first couple of weeks in NYC doing exactly as I was told. Spending my days cold calling photographers was one of the most depressing experiences in my life. I thought I got rejected a lot when trying to pickup women at a bar, but that didn’t compare to how much I was rejected when calling photographers for assisting work. If I got a photographer or studio manager on the phone I usually got a response saying something like “We’re not looking for anyone right now” or “Send us your resume and we’ll keep it on file”. Even more depressing was when the photographer would say he wished he needed an assistant because he hadn’t shot a job in months!
After my first week of rejection calls I decided to drop of my photography portfolio at a magazine to make myself feel like I was doing something constructive towards my commercial photography dream. A week after dropping off my book it was time for me to pick it up. Anyone who knows how sweltering NYC can get during a heat wave knows it takes effort to go anywhere when it’s that hot. Nevertheless I ventured out of Brooklyn to the city to pick up my book. To my amazement the photo editor came out to meet me personally and returned my portfolio to me. Since it was so hot in NYC I was dressed more like a messenger than a photographer, which added to the insecurity of meeting the photo editor on this day. She was very friendly and told me that they really enjoyed my portfolio and thanked me for bringing it by. I was happy as a clam: the photo editor of a major NYC magazine said she liked my work!
It didn’t take much time for life to return back to normal and my concentration quickly switched back to trying to make money as an assistant. Sure, a NYC magazine photo editor liked my work, but I realized that it meant nothing if I was broke and couldn’t afford to pay my rent. After hundreds of phone calls, resumes mailed, and promo cards sent I started working for a few different photographers regularly as an assistant. I had temporarily put my photographer dream on hold and was happy to be working as a photo assistant and paying my bills.
These days I usually try to avoid unknown calls on my cell phone but back then I would get excited when I received phone calls from unknown phone numbers. Most of the time it was someone calling to book me to work as an assistant. On a Tuesday in October I got a call from an unknown caller. To my amazement it was the photo editor from the magazine I had shown my portfolio to a few months earlier asking if I could do a photo shoot for the magazine on Friday. I was in no way prepared for this phone call! What are the chances that the one magazine I had shown my portfolio to was actually calling me to hire me for a shoot?
After leaning all the details of the shoot and hanging up the phone, I went through every possible emotion over a period of about 30 minutes: I was excited, scared, anxious, stressed, happy, proud, and incredibly nervous all at the same time. I was 24 years old and a major national magazine wanted to hire me to shoot a story for them in a few days. This was a big deal, my dream was beginning to come true and it had only been a few months. Could this be the beginning of the end of my assistant career?
Then the scary reality of the moment set in. I didn’t even own a roll of gaffers tape at the time, how could I possibly be ready to do a shoot for a national magazine in a few days? In a bit of a panic, I called up one of the photographers I had been assisting for and asking him for his opinion. I knew he had shot for this magazine in the past and he must know what I needed to do. Lucky for me he gave me some great advise. He said, “Don’t get stressed out. Just concentrate on taking beautiful pictures, that’s all that really matters”. After getting off the phone with him I started thinking about what he told me. I guess I had made beautiful pictures up to this point with the gear I owned and without a roll of gaffer’s tape, so why couldn’t that work for this shoot?
My first shoot went smoothly and I continued to shoot for the same magazine for years to come. I feel so privileged to shoot for so many great publications and the people who work for them. It’s really easy to get caught up on all the wrong things on a photo shoot. Maybe I don’t like the props the stylist brought, or I was hoping for a sunny day and now it’s cloudy, or I envisioned the client wanting one thing and they want another thing. At the end of the day, as long I walk away from my photo shoots having made beautiful pictures, I am happy. Every time I see my images in a magazine or on display somewhere, I still feel like it’s something magical.