James Lee | Hello RVA
James and I met for the first time only a couple of months ago. To start, he is an incredible wedding and portrait photographer who - along with fellow photographer, Stephanie Dennehy - co-founded 88 Love Stories back in 2011 - a local wedding photography company here in Richmond. Whenever I spend any time with him, I always walk away feeling like I've learned something new. Not only is he truly skilled in his craft, it's easy to see that he harbors both a strong sense of community and a genuine desire to share knowledge with those eager to learn. It is certainly interesting being able to sit down with another photographer and pick their brain. So I am glad to have him here as part of Hello RVA!
Photographer, business owner, entrepreneur
In which we talk about getting over ourselves, facing our fears and doing the thing.
USE THREE WORDS TO DESCRIBE YOURSELF.
It depends on what version of me you're talking to. Personally, I’d say introspective, because I think about how I'm doing all the time... although that used to be more obsessive than is now. A learner… [I’m] constantly wanting to learn whatever it is that I'm interested in. And people pleaser... which I'm working on. I can't please everybody... but it hurts when I can't.
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS - WHAT DO YOU DO?
My career is that I'm a self employed photographer... but to expand on that, I have been a wedding photographer full time for seven plus years. I also photograph really anything involving people. So, that could be portraits for head shots or portraits for families or for high school seniors and that's what I've done for several years now. I manage a team of photographers too... But what makes my profession fun is that there's that flexibility that any entrepreneur or business owner gets, which is the flexibility of time and being able to chase after your dreams.
DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER HOBBIES OR SIDE GIGS?
I have a dream to pursue more film and video related work. I’m bent towards creating things that maybe others can't replicate as easily, and to stay away from the norm... Which is interesting because my mind wants to go against the norm anytime and always but sometimes it kind of hurts to go against the norm. As a wedding photographer, you see what goes on in social media and [if] someone's news feed looks really aesthetically pleasing... you can totally copy and paste that onto your own, in a sense. But I don't want to be that kind of person.
With video, I want to do something a little bit more unique and on my level. With the resources that I have, [I can] try to create not only visually pleasing and cinematic video work, but also tell stories. If you can produce something that's like a Hollywood production on a very small scale, it's pretty intriguing and amazing to witness. So I look for projects like that personally for me to be involved in. It could be [something small] like, recently I filmed a friend's Porsche, but I just tried to make as cool-looking shots as possible, knowing that it didn't tell a story or anything. But it was something I wanted to experiment with and to get better at cinematic visual storytelling, if you will.
Vlogging is also in my future. I can't say that I've done enough of that right now, but I would love to do a lot more. I'm building a team of people to help me with that and it'll be kind of an ongoing process, so we’ll see what it evolves into.
WHERE ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE PLACES TO HANG OUT, AND WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO IN YOUR FREE TIME?
I think more importantly than where is with who. Sometimes, that who is literally myself. Having to go out every week, travel the states or just around town and do all this work related stuff... I need that decompression time of just being at home, hanging out, watching movies or shows. Lately, it's been video games... kind of a childhood thing that I wanted to bring back. But otherwise I'll have to schedule time with my close guy friends because our lives are so busy. It's usually early morning breakfast before work rather than going out somewhere after. I feel like those times are almost long gone because of just getting older and having families. But I think that if I were to get out and just hang out in places, I'd try to make it a little more adventurous and explore something new... (but not something that takes a lot of physical energy. If I have to go put on the hiking boots that I don't have... maybe I’ll stay away from that.) The mountains would be preferable for a one day excursion.
WHY DID YOU GET INTO PHOTOGRAPHY?
I think that the first time I knew I wanted to get into photography was back in either eleventh or twelfth grade. I remember shooting pictures with disposable cameras and my grandfather's polaroid camera that he allowed me to take on a couple of field trips. I had a lot of fun with that, and really savored it, [asking myself] “what pictures do I want?” I usually just ended up taking pictures of my friends. But I'm not about to turn that into a story of how I'm the “photographer who was born with a camera.” My dad had bought me this Olympus, five megapixel point and shoot camera, and it literally never left my side. I took it everywhere and made graphic design projects, photo compositions and cool graphics on photoshop. Fortunately, in twelfth grade I was lucky to have a graphics design class at school.
The first time I did an actual portrait shoot, it was totally free. I just got together with a friend of mine... and I was a nervous wreck. How do you pose? What do you do? Hand-on-the-hip? I was already thinking way ahead of myself, and my actual abilities. I was like, “I gotta come up with other poses. This girl's going to think I don't know what I'm doing.” Of course I didn’t know what I was doing! But she was totally cool and was like, “if you want me to do a sexy pose, just say the the name Christina Aguilera and I'll do something.” I felt so lost and nervous and out of my element but I knew I wanted to be really good at it. And that was twelfth grade. It's kinda crazy, it was that long ago. So that's when it started, that's when I knew I wanted to do portrait shoots, and I wanted to work with people.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO THE WEDDING BUSINESS?
I was either 22 or 23 at the time. A friend of mine from high school and his dad were doing weddings. They had a very, very reputable company and did a lot of weddings every year. So, kind of on accident I got started with them as an assistant one summer, second shooting weddings with their camera, their gear, and learning how to use external flash and speedlites and things like that. [I learned] how to work the very first canon 5D and then Canon 20D’s and 30Ds. I shot over two years with them, doing weddings. So it was a happy accident. I wasn't looking for it but it kind of came to me and I knew I enjoyed it.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FOCUSES IN LIFE OR LINE OF WORK?
It's kind of hard to divide the personal and work, really. Work is such a huge part of my life. I definitely have a high priority on it, just like most people do... but I think my overall vision for life is to live it well. I’m continually working on my character. Like, how peaceable am I with others and with myself? How humble am I? How do I deal with the most common issues that we all face, like shame and guilt? As long as it’s getting better and the outcome is to be a greater person to be around and to impact other people’s lives in what I think is a positive way, that’s a life well lived. So, that’s a constant personal thing that I always chase after.
I'm a single guy, so everything that I do in life right now revolves around [the question], “what is a single person to do when he has all this time and energy to do just about anything?” I think I’d like to build a life that has some similarities to others... like buy a house, maybe get married. But also non typical things. I have such a personal drive to want to create things that will hopefully impact others on a personal level.
Work wise... it's kinda funny... but one of the things I'm working on is a way to eventually transition out of weddings. Not because I hate them, but - in a sense - I've done everything I could for them, and whatever I set out to do with wedding photography. Every last little thing imaginable, I've pretty much done. So, what's left is to either make the dream bigger and greater than I would even think is possible... or transition out of it and find something new that I can be driven towards.
I think I've gone through the latter and found some things with the video and storytelling that I would like to pursue. Except, I don't know exactly what that looks like, but I know I want that to be a career. Being 33 and thinking about the next chapter of life, physically your body's not the way it was when you were in your 20s and time being more precious and a little harder to manage… not wanting to waste the energy you spend. I want to find things that I know are meaningful to me, in my gut and in my heart. Find those things and pursue them... but I don’t want to dismiss the skills that I have with photography and videography. So, I use that as a tool to work on these impactful projects and the ones that are meaningful to me.
WHAT HAS BEEN SOME OF YOUR GREATEST CHALLENGES?
Honestly, the greatest challenge I've had is myself... getting over myself. I'm like most scarred kids... growing up with a dysfunctional family, having random things in my past come back to haunt me and not really knowing how to escape those things... The things that you're fearful of, have insecurities about, regrets... things like that. There’s this idea that I’m supposed to be so perfect and I think that was ingrained in my culture growing up. Korean households are, in the traditional sense, typically pretty hard on kids to make the most out of their brains and abilities. I don’t think my family realized they gave birth to a future photographer, and a creative person. Though, it’s interesting - my mom’s brother is a musician. My grandfather and my dad were both pretty great singers. I was the same - I loved to create art rather than this idea that I would go to the military or become a doctor like some of my family. So, as a kid I had all those things, but as an adult, I have to go through phases of getting over that so I won’t be held back in life. It's difficult to introspect for a little while. I don't think it's good to obsessively introspect and always ask yourself how you're doing because I don't think that we can see past our own mirror.
Like, if I take someone's head shots for example... a lot of people - especially women - say, “oh, I hate getting headshots,” but what they imply is, “I don't like how I look.” I think that we beat ourselves up mentally in that way. If you were to physically manifest the things that you say about yourself, it would essentially be like tying yourself into a chair and punching yourself all the time. But that's how much we beat ourselves up... into a bloody pulp that we can no longer recognize. My greatest challenge is to wipe away the blood and clean up those scars and those wounds and see my true self again. The hope is to learn to love myself well so that I know what it's like to - at my core - love others too. To see past myself so I can see others and see this world and not be so encumbered by it or disillusion by all the terrible things that happen around us. But to see past it and ask how we can make this better.... or how we can just live with it?
TELL ME ABOUT WHAT INSPIRES YOU AND HOW DO YOU KEEP YOURSELF MOTIVATED?
By not forcing it. I think I learned that lesson from trying a lot of business ideas. They were... good ideas... but what I think makes a great idea is one that you actual follow through on. With motivation and being inspired, it’s kind of the same thing. There are some things that kind of get you motivated or inspired… and then there are ideas that may not be fully formulated… but you’re so pumped by it that you’re willing to - like when you’re cooking - let it simmer for a little while so you can get that perfect taste. I think that’s the same way for me, with this vlogging thing that I was talking about earlier. I don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like. So, I’m going to allow that idea to simmer and I can try some things in the meantime. Like, add a little ingredient here and a little ingredient there just to see what tastes good. The hope is not to have to scratch the recipe completely because you added too much of one thing.
If there’s something that I’m super pumped on doing right now, I just go out and do it. I don’t like to just photograph one type of subject. I’m mostly known for wedding photography, but I love trying so many different things. My Instagram feed will never be consistent like a lot of popular Instagrammers are, because I like to try so many different things. A lot of it can be in-the-moment stuff and I’m like, “okay I know this can take less than a day to accomplish, so I’ll go ahead and do it.” And if I feel the desire to do it again and again, then I will. Other than that, I think part of the reason I enjoy watching different shows and movies is - not only the entertainment value and just decompressing and hanging out - but I get some ideas from that too.
One of my favorite movie directors is Christopher Nolan, who directed the recent Batman movies, and Inception, Interstellar, The Prestige. He has this way of focusing on amazing storytelling in a way that’s also unique. When you’re watching a Christopher Nolan movie, the story is probably going to be the most interesting part, and all the visual effects and the visual appeal are really meant to compliment that story. I’ve never been that kind of storyteller at any point in my life, I don’t think... I don’t look back and see that in me. But I'm inspired by that more and more these days because I’m like, “wow, what he does requires that as a prerequisite to making anything.”
WHO HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST INFLUENCE IN YOUR LIFE AND WHAT DID THAT PERSON TEACH YOU?
Definitely my friend Lisa Rattner. When I was 28, I went to what they call a “Young Professional’s Bible Study Group” and it sounded so freaking lame... But I went, and I found myself going again and again. What I was finding was a kind of solidarity with people who were my age, on a faith journey and very heavily involved in their career development. So I thought, this is perfect for me... this is kind of where I’m at too.
Lisa Rattner was the director of that group through what’s called a parachurch organization here in town. But she had a crazy past. Her life really changed dramatically. She’s this fiery, Hoboken, New Jersey girl. She’s fiery and sassy but she’s also, at the same time, very gentle and tender. Like, all of these great qualities you’d want in a Councillor, or a therapist or life coach. The kind of impact she had on me reverts back to all the things I talked about with myself being my greatest challenge. Getting over fears and insecurities and doubts and worries and constant concern about certain things in life. She was very influential in guiding me and taking me by the hand through a lot of those processes and realizing what my true identity is and being open to what a life fully lived looks like. Like, a true version of life, if you will. Not just getting over stuff like my past, but also to be lead into "what does life look like with a positive outlook, and what does it look like to live inside of that?"
DO YOU HAVE ADVICE FOR ANYONE SEEKING TO START A PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS?
Usually people don’t like my answer... The keyword is business. I could tell you all the ways to be a better photographer… but that’s not what a photography business is about. Photography business is about running a business, and you need to do that in order to get paid doing something that you enjoy. Oftentimes, we miss that important piece, which makes up for like, 80 percent of our career.
I’ll give an answer that I think is really helpful for people. It’s a question I get all the time… "how do I price myself?" The first step is to research - not the photographers around the world that you look up to... they are in completely different markets than you are... but to price yourself fairly with the market around you in the same city or the same region, depending on if you’re doing stuff in your own city, or traveling around. First and foremost, see and research what the pricing is around your area. Make sure that you’re offering fair market value, not only for your customers, but for yourself. Do not overprice yourself or compare yourself to photographers who may have been in the business for a few years. That’s not comparing apples to apples. I think collectively, that sends the wrong message to customers. People with years and years of experience sometimes have to compete by bringing their pricing down. I don’t think that’s very fair... but that’s because collectively, we don’t have a structure for how we price things. So, price yourself fairly, but know where your experience level is. Then, after a while, build up your portfolio, have a bunch of images that you can share and gain the experience. Ask yourself the question “what’s the minimum that I want to make in order to keep doing this?” That makes it fair for you. As long as that number isn't ridiculous. Like, "I want to make $10,000 for every family portrait session!" Okay, good luck. Maybe if your goal is to get one shoot every ten years... maybe someone would pay that. But if you're trying to do this on the regular, then that's obviously ridiculous. But there's a minimum that you need to make in order to make it fair to you and make a full time career out of it. Say, "Is this something people would buy?" If not, how can I make it that way?