(Click here for part 2)
“Photography is in my blood.”
I have repeated this sentence as many times as I’ve been asked how I became a photographer. If you’re a creative professional, you know we get asked that question a lot.
I cringe every time I answer because the answer feels so corny to me. But it’s the truth. Photography is in my blood.
My grandfather on my mother’s side loved taking pictures; he died when I was 6.
My uncle caught the photography bug next and I remember him taking photographs. He even built a darkroom in the bathroom of his 1 bedroom apartment. This was the man who shot my entire kindergarten graduating class back in the day.
It wasn’t until I was in grade 8 that I began to pick up the family point-and-shoot and take blurry images of flowers, and portraits of family and friends. But it wasn’t until my art teacher secretly allowed me into the dark room to begin developing film (freshmen weren’t allowed in the photography classes) that I realized I’d caught the bug.
By then, it had already become a full-blown virus. I was 15 and I wanted to become a photographer!
Early Adulthood in Toronto
So, at 18, as soon as I graduated from high school, I attended the 2-year condensed Photography program at Humber College in Toronto (where I grew up). I learned everything – fashion, portrait, wedding, even food and product photography, which became quite useful later in my career.
After graduating at 20, I honestly didn’t know where to begin. I only knew a few things; I wanted to be the biggest fashion photographer that has ever existed, photograph celebrities, and leave Toronto for New York or Los Angeles.
Allow me to elaborate on just HOW clueless I was. First, I was coming from an old school background. I had a film camera, Photoshop 3… even dial-up internet. Photographers weren’t being pumped out in high quantities like are today. No social media, no way to easily share information. More importantly – it wasn’t easy to find information.
I didn’t know how to build my portfolio post-graduation.
I had no conception that I could put an entire team together – a model, makeup artist, hair stylist, wardrobe stylist and a nail technician, all shooting for free so we can build our portfolios together.
I had no website, a part-time job at a camera store, and nowhere near enough images to put on a site, even if I’d had one. I bummed around for a few months after graduating until one evening I said to myself, “Enough, figure it out! Can’t sit here doing nothing!”
So, I figured it out.
Now, I had never assisted and I didn’t have photography peers who were also trying to “make it”. No one shared anything they’d learned with me. There wasn’t really a wealth of information online. What I did learn, I learned at photography school and through practice. So I had to start from scratch.
I did what came naturally: I researched every little thing.
I learned how to build a website through a program called “The Complete Idiots Guide to Web Design.”
I figured out how to begin building a fashion portfolio and became close friends with my makeup artist, Colette Cormier, who began teaching me about the mysteries of SEO.
All of the sudden I had photos, a website, and when you searched “Toronto Photographers” on Google, I was on the first page!
I was starting to get jobs! More Research: I learned about pricing, basic contracts, marketing.
Within a few years, I was shooting modeling portfolios, headshots for actors and dancers, glamour photos, beauty for jewelry companies, e-commerce for clothing companies.
(Oh, did I forget to mention I was shooting all this in the living room of my parents’ house?)
A Wardrobe Stylist Changed Everything
Around then a fabulous wardrobe stylist named Giselle Castillo changed my life. She taught me what it meant to carry a theme through a shoot and, most importantly, told me that I could submit to magazines.
So I tried.
It was amazing. My very first beauty story was picked up by Lemonade magazine – in LA, of all places!
Then, out of the blue, Annie Lam (who was the fashion editor of Jazmine magazine at the time) called me one day. My first fashion shoot was for Jazmin magazine. I was freaking out with excitement.
Beauty Editorial, Lemonade Magazine:
Suddenly I knew I could be a celebrity photographer.
It felt like it was just around the corner. But celebrities don’t live in Toronto. They weren’t really easy to come by. I needed a plan.
Every so often Much Music in downtown Toronto would have celebrity performers, so I decided I needed to shoot them. I didn’t have a press pass (I wasn’t associated with a magazine), so I did the next best thing.
When you can’t walk through the front door, you break a window.
(No, not literally.)
I camped out in front of the building waited in line for HOURS with my camera. I pushed myself to the front row, fighting with screaming fans, photographing whichever musician happened to be performing and doing a Q&A.
I stood out in the crowd with my telephoto lens, so every once in a while they would look at me and I’d get a “portrait” of them. It was working, little by little.
Here’s the corner of Much Music in Toronto:
Eventually, I got smart and camped out for 10 hours at the VMA’s! I got a ton of celebrities at once, put them on my site and suddenly, I was dubbed as a “celebrity photographer”.
I reached out to more and more magazines, stayed top ranking on Google, and I was very fortunate that a lot of people were finding me. Even advertising agencies were beginning to inquire about my photography.
I made it.
All of the sudden, I made over $65k in 2007. Not too shabby for a 25-year-old-freelancer.
So, I knew I had to do it. I had the resources. I had the experience. I had to follow the dream, wherever it may lead. So I finally decided to jump ship and move to Los Angeles…