MY JOURNEY // A BEAUTIFUL DISASTER.
For the three of you who follow this blog you may be asking yourself "Man Travis you haven't posted in almost two months. What the hell is going on?" My response is simple.
I've been busy as shit, and I couldn't be happier.
But if you asked me the same question two months ago, I would have had a completely different answer, and probably not a very good one. The last month alone has gifted me with one of the biggest smiles I've had in quite some time, and it feels fucking good. But that's all besides the point of this entry. Lets get into it!
I've had a shitload of people ask me lately how I got into Photography and how I make a living out of it. I haven't really been able to give a consistent answer to those curious souls and most of the time I just answer with "I have no idea" and a laugh coupled with a shoulder shrug, but as I was driving home tonight I thought I'd give those who are curious about my journey the answer I couldn't give because I didn't have two hours and a few beers to pour it all out.
I hope it doesn't take you two hours to read this, but it's definitely long. So grab yourself another glass of wine and a comfortable chair. Here is my journey in painstaking detail from roughly August 18th, 2009 to March 9, 2016. Enjoy.
CHAPTER ONE // CARL.
I'm not really sure where to start with something like this. So I'll start back to my first memories from my Freshman year at The Kansas City Art Institute, since that's where I was convinced that I wanted to become a Photographer.
My earliest memories from my Foundation (freshman) year mainly consist of my very first (and favorite) professor, Carl Kurtz; and his up-front no bullshit attitude...and his questionable confidence in me and my abilities, especially considering the bulk of the time spent in this year was drawing. I'm fucking awful at drawing. Picture a 17 year old skateboarder who accidentally found out he wanted to go to art school but wasn't very good at art, and then place him in a private college for artists. Oh, and he also only got into said art school with a portfolio of 20 shitty photos and is very bad at anything else. Does that paint the picture well enough for you?
if not, here's a photo of me from Foundation Year.
I have no idea what I was doing that Carl saw. Or what he saw. But he saw something, and he let me know it pretty early on. He would sit with me after studio and watch motorsport races, supercross races, skate videos, car videos, etc. If I had it on Carl would sit, watch, and talk with me while I struggled trying to throw something together for the assignment he previously gave the class. I think the reason that these times stand out to me so much is because while Carl was sitting with me watching me struggle we never spoke about the assignment, only what I was watching on my laptop while I was struggling. It turned out that Carl was pretty interested in the motorsports, and the motocross. We had a few things in common, and that was pretty awesome considering I was heavily outnumbered by talent every single day when I walked into that studio, which became overwhelmingly apparent when it became time to critique work. I felt so out of place in studio. I was surrounded with people who have been gifted with the ability to draw and think artistically. The only thing I was good at involved a skateboard. Needless to say...I struggled A LOT. But I also did every assignment regardless of how shitty I knew it was going to be.
But there was one critique probably halfway through the semester where everything changed.
Carl had given the class an assignment to create the four stages of emotion using nothing but black paper, scissors, and some glue. Maybe it was the fact that this project didn't involve a piece of charcoal that got me more interested in this project, I'm not 100% sure. By this time in the year I had found that I worked best alone and usually a little later at night. So one night I locked myself in studio and got to work.
The next morning I arrived to studio late (as usual) with a Monster energy in hand ready to sit through another grueling round of Critiques. But this day was different. As I was looking around at everyone else's work I noticed something that made me crawl out from underneath my hooded sweatshirt. There was no clear definition in people's work. What I mean by that is: My work didn't stick out like a sore thumb as the shittiest piece hanging on the wall. For the first time in Foundation year I didn't feel overwhelmed by the talent surrounding me. This was a good day. When the savage critiques came around to my piece I was quite nervous, and vulnerable without a hoodie to hide under. But to my surprise..when Carl asked the class to identify the emotions one of my peers had answered, and when Carl had asked me if she was right I answered with nothing but a head nodding yes.
I think Carl was just as surprised as I was as he fired a question at me that I was unable to answer: "Travis, Why do you think she was able to determine each emotion correctly?"
After I stared blankly at him for a few seconds Carl explained to me why Hannah was able to decipher my emotions as they hung on the white walls. He said (quite loudly, and to the entire class)
"She was able to determine them because she took you seriously,and she took you seriously because you took YOURSELF seriously."
It's hard for me to describe the feeling that was rushing through my body as I came to one of the single most important life changing revelations in my life to date, but it was something like a mixture of adrenaline, excitement, fear, and comfort mixed with the feeling when you make an incredible discovery. Can you picture that feeling? It's pretty fucking great, and to this day I look back on this exact scenario when I'm faced with a challenge, or when I need a little pick me up.
From that moment on, I DID start taking myself seriously, and sure enough...other people did too. I went on to create a couple of different things that I would say held their own in the sea of talent flooding that studio, and by the time I was finished with Carl's Foundation class I was ready to take on the slew of hell that The Kansas City Art Institute would throw at me.
A bunch of other shit happened in my Foundation year also, but most of it is pretty irrelevant to my journey in becoming a photographer for a living, so we'll skip that. I did get shot 12 times in the bare chest/abdomen though for a performance art piece. Here's a photo.
That shit hurt a lot worse than it looks too.
I'm not sure he realizes it, but I owe a lot to Carl Kurtz and his aggressive confidence in me, and sadly I'll never be able to tell him how much I truly appreciate everything he did for me. I wish I had a photograph of him and I to show you, but it's on a hard drive sitting in a box somewhere in St. Louis.
Around this time last year Carl lost a harsh battle with Cancer. He put up one hell of a fight as he was not one to give up easily.
Rest in peace Carl, and Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
CHAPTER 2 // PHOTO MAJOR
After Realizing that I couldn't draw, sculpt, paint, or do just about anything else that KCAI had to offer it was time to get what I had originally came for. I don't really remember much of Sophomore year, probably because all we were doing was darkroom nonsense. I can't think of any kind of epiphany's happening here, so we'll skip that.
Junior year of college was a pretty interesting one. I had already known how to make photographs, but I wasn't very good at explaining why I made them. I pretty much bullshitted my way through a lot of critiques (if i'm being honest) and pretended to take what people were saying seriously, but I honestly had no fucking clue what a lot of these people were talking about when it came to the conceptual side of things. I found that I really only cared more about the technical side of the photography such as how it was shot, processed, hung, etc. I honestly didn't give two shits about the story behind it.
I eventually jumped on the conceptual train and learned how to speak through a photograph and speak about it, explain it, etc. and at the time I hated every second of it, but I am pretty thankful for being forced into thinking that way though because it does make my job quite a bit easier now as I'm talking to creative directors about what they want to say in representation of their products.
*ADVICE: LEARN HOW TO SPEAK THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHS.
*ADVICE: BECOME PROFICIENT IN DIGITAL SHOOTING AND RETOUCHING.
*ADVICE: USE PHOTOSHOP. IF YOU DON'T YOU'LL NEVER MAKE IT, I DONT CARE WHAT YOU SAY.
Junior year of college is always one that I refer to as my brick wall. I'm not really sure how I got through. I only took a handful of photographs, came to class late almost every single day, missed a lot of classes/critiques, and didn't really invest hardly any time into myself as a photographer. The reason being is that I was too busy painting trains almost every single night until I was blue in the face.
Junior year is also the year that I started my internship at the Commercial Photography studio where I would find myself learning a great deal of what I know now with some of the best people I've met in my entire life. I found it very easy to learn quickly from people who I was genuinely interested in and liked. I also found that I felt the best when I surrounded myself with people who were making careers out of things that they were passionate about. Just a couple of things to think about as you're making your way into the world.
*ADVICE: FIND PEOPLE YOU IDENTIFY WITH AND LEARN EVERYTHING YOU CAN FROM THEM.
*ADVICE: GET AN INTERNSHIP SOONER RATHER THAN LATER.
*ADVICE: STAY IN SCHOOL.
I know it sounds kind of weird, but I wasn't really sure that I wanted to become a photographer until my Senior year of College as I was getting my degree in Photography....Pretty crazy right?
I spent my final year of college refining my skills as much as possible, interning at the studio, and working on combining my love for graffiti with my love for photography. I developed a photographic series entitled BENEATH THE RESPIRATOR, which was my way of creating photographs at the same time as I was out painting or benching trains. It's tough to say how many photographs were in the entire series, but I spent somewhere around four or five months putting together my Senior Thesis show which showcased roughly 15 finished and framed images in a gallery setting. Here's a couple of examples:
Putting the show together was nothing short of an expensive nightmare. I won't go into too much detail about all of that, but one little fun fact about my Senior Show is that the Day before the opening 4 frames fell off the wall and broke. I had to scramble like a son of a bitch and do a few things I'm not too proud of to get everything fixed and put back together in time for the opening. Which could not have gone any better. About halfway through the show I had realized that I was witnessing the very moment where my two worlds had collided. This would be the second time I felt the euphoric feeling I described earlier when Carl Kurtz had opened my eyes to the world I was walking into.
It was fucking incredible.
Completing my senior thesis was basically the end of my college career, there was some other shit that happened too, and then I graduated...nothing too exciting there.
CHAPTER 3 // THE REAL WORLD IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.
It wasn't too shortly after graduation that I was able to find a full time job, and I'll never forget the phone call that lead up to it. It was something like a Tuesday morning at like 9AM and I was still drunk from the night before. My buddy calls and tells me that his company is hiring a photographer and that I should apply. Half asleep and half drunk I fell off of the couch and stumbled downstairs. I had a job to get!
Okay now the way this played out was pretty fast, don't blink because you might miss it.
I threw together an application packet and sent it out later that day.
I received a phone call the next day scheduling an interview.
Two days later I was in St. Louis at an interview.
Two days later I got a phone call and was asked to accept the job.
Five days later I was living in St. Louis and had a job.
The whole process took literally a week, and I had no idea what the fuck just happened. Now I know I said it all happened fast and blah blah blah, but in reality I was facing an incredibly difficult situation. The job I was accepting was in St. Louis and I lived in Kansas. Something I had left out in this whole equation is that my father was in the middle of battling Stage 4 cancer and accepting this job meant that I would be moving to a new city and not having the chance to be at home with him. I don't think I really need to go into detail about how hard that decision was to make, but after he had told me sternly to accept the job, I did...and I was packed up and living in St. Louis in no time as a full time photographer for an automotive LED manufacturing company.
I accepted the job in September. I actually moved there on my birthday (fun fact) and 2 months later (almost to the exact day) I was on the way to work when my phone rang. Delivering the worst news I've ever received in my life. My father had taken his final breaths roughly an hour before the phone rang, which was around the exact time that I had woken up. I'd like to think that the jerking motion I made when I woke up was somehow correlated with my father leaving this place behind.
I don't really remember the gap from November-April with any detail, but I do know that I returned to work about a week after losing my dad, and purposely didn't give myself time to mourn his departure, which I don't recommend because it did eventually catch up to me about a year later and I lost my fucking mind over it.
However, once I woke up from my 6-month nap I realized that it was time to start taking photography seriously. I had gathered a bunch of random knowledge from school and my internship that I never really got to put to use. So I started doing a shitload of computer research on techniques, spent a ton of time practicing different things, and started shooting as much as possible. By June I had already seen a ridiculous improvement in quality of my work and by July I already had a whole new body of work to build a website with. For the next year I shot as much as I could and refined techniques over and over and over. It was in this time frame that I started taking shooting extra serious and was able to work with some pretty awesome companies through my job and travel to a bunch of places making cool shit. I was also starting to work pretty closely with a good friend of mine helping him with some video stuff, which has given me some pretty amazing opportunities as well.
CHAPTER 4 // FREELANCE.
If I have anything to teach, it's going to be in this chapter.
It was pretty shortly after I returned from Formula Drift Atlanta that I took the leap into the freelance world. By this point I had been exposed to the racing side of media for a few months and was already hooked. I had been thinking about jumping into freelance for a few months before I actually did it. I went to a bunch of different studios in St. Louis to meet with different photographers and retouchers to feel out the market and see if there was enough assist work to hold me over while I try to find clients of my own. After realizing that there really is no "perfect" time to take the leap into the freelance world, and coming to the realization that nobody wants to hire someone who isn't available during the week it was time to take the leap myself. Before I knew it, I was officially freelance.
I must say. Taking the leap is incredibly scary. But MY GOD IS IT WORTH IT (eventually) <Notice how I say eventually? That's because unless you actually know what you're getting yourself into becoming freelance is nothing short of a fucking nightmare. I say this with experience.
I would have liked to think that I knew what I was getting myself into, but in reality...I had no fucking clue. And I was insanely unprepared.
I stepped out with no jobs booked, no confirmed clients, no savings, 2 maxed out credit cards, not a lot of gear, and something like $100
I've been Freelance for roughly 10 months now, and although that really is not a long time...I do feel like I've gone through a couple of transitions and might be able to offer a little bit of advice to those thinking of making the bold leap into uncertainty.
1. Save some money.
Don't do what I did. I think the best idea is to save up a couple months of rent and utilities just to be safe. When rent is due and you only have 40$ in your bank it gets a little scary, I promise. Make the sacrifices early on to save a little dough before you find yourself scraping by to make your bill payments.
2. Find some Jobs/Clients BEFORE you take the leap.
Another thing I did not do. Having jobs booked and clients means that you wont have to sell your bike and some of your photo gear to pay rent when the time comes. Having bookings also eliminates the stress of waking up at 2pm with nothing to do and bills to pay. Don't get me wrong...the first week with nothing to do can be a nice vacation, but don't put yourself into a hole you can't get yourself out of, it's not fun. I promise.
3. Make friends with other creatives.
This is something you should be doing even if you're not freelance. But establishing relationships with other creatives in your area means having access to possibly renting gear, assisting, retouching questions, etc. Also make friends with designers, stylists, hair/makeup artists, set builders, etc. You all need each other in this industry anyway, why not trade skills and get ahead together?
Plus it's good to find a friend who can pass you their overflow jobs when you're running low, and vice versa. I always recommend making friends instead of competition for obvious reasons, but also find someone in your position who you can come up with, you don't have to be alone in this journey.
4. You can't make it on your own.
I don't give a shit who you are, or who you think you are...you can NOT make a living doing hardly anything on your own. Don't be afraid to ask questions, and if you don't understand..keep asking until you do. Take every networking opportunity as seriously as possible. You never know who you'll be needing a helping hand from.
5. Be Persistent AS SHIT. But know your limits.
This title may be a little confusing, but it really is very important. One thing that a lot of people looking to assist/shoot are afraid of is "being annoying" and rightfully so. Nobody wants to buy healthcare from those vultures who keep calling so why would they want to buy photography from you is you keep calling? The secret is to pop up conveniently for whoever you're trying to reach. I usually shoot emails to studios asking if they need assistants/digital tech every month or so. Now that may seem like a lot, but if you're a busy studio you're not actively searching for assistants, they are coming to you. With that being said most photographers will appreciate a monthly check in because it lets them know that you are available to work, which is something you should be letting EVERYONE know when you're starting out.
As for being "annoying" if you think you're being annoying, you're right where you need to be. It's important to stay relevant in this industry. So stay relevant and stay fresh, but don't over do it. I can;t tell you how to do that, you have to figure that our on your own.
6. It gets better.
I can't tell you how many times I questioned my current financial situation after leaving a job that paid comfortably, but I firmly believe that I am where I am now because I was able to fight through the extremely shitty times where eating, heat and air conditioning was a luxury. Almost every successful photographer I've spoken to has a story where they got their electricity cut off, missed rent payments, slept in their car, etc. and I have never heard a single one of them tell me that they regret it. I know I sure don't.
Half of the battle of becoming self employed is possessing the willpower and perseverance to get through the tough times. They are inevitable, and are guaranteed to happen. If there's one thing I want people to take away from this entry it is to never give up. No matter how bad it is, no matter how many of your favorite items you have to sell, or how many nights you have to sleep in your car. If you are truly passionate about what you are doing you WILL make it work....and when it finally does it is one of the most rewarding feelings in the world.
Waking up every day and knowing that you are making a living out of your passion is a feeling that is unexplainable. So I beg you..do not give up. It gets better.
OKAY SO. What's happening now, Travis?
The last 10ish months can only be explained as nothing short of a beautiful disaster. I've maxed out numerous credit cards, gone a few days without eating, spent several sleepless nights meeting deadlines, met some amazing people, and had some of the most incredible moments of my life. I have a lot of people to thank for bringing me to where I am today, but I also like to think that I was lucky enough to be born into the right type of personality to make my dreams a reality.
Since I've decided that I wanted to be a creative I've been lucky enough to be apart of some amazing productions for some very reputable companies and have found myself on locations shooting products, food, a SWAT team, professional athletes, high end luxury cars, race cars, motorsport races, celebrities, etc. I've also been exposed to some of the most reputable advertisement agencies in the game. None of it came easy, but it's been one hell of a journey.
I wouldn't change a single thing.
There are way too many people to thank, but I would very much like to extend an extra special thanks to the people who have helped me along the way. Especially those who have put up with my ups and downs, and those who fought through the tears and dealt with the obnoxious laughter over the last 6-7 years. It's been one hell of a ride.