As I write this, it's September. That means that school photos are coming up soon. Have fun with that ;)
I used to be a school photographer, it's one of the ways I got my start in photography.
In a completely unexpected way, school photography changed the course of my life.
Here's how it happened.
I photographed and edited the yearbook in my second year of university. That led to photographing some weddings for fellow students.
During my 4 years of university I constantly watched the Job Bank online. And, in 4 years, I didn't come across one single interesting job.
I toyed with the idea of starting a photography business, but I didn't have much experience and didn't feel ready.
I knew what kind of job I didn't want. No more factory work; I had done a half decade of that already.
And definitely, positively, absolutely, no working with kids.
Why no kids? Because I was scared of them! I didn't know how to talk to them. I was a shy introvert. I didn't talk to anybody... and definitely not kids!
No sir, I would never work with kids.
I gave up the opportunity to become a teacher... because I couldn't work with kids.
So with no job prospects, starting a photography business was beginning to seem like a good idea. I would probably photograph weddings. But I didn't know where to start.
You have to understand, this is the pre-Facebook, pre-Pinterest era.
I didn't even know what photos were supposed to look like!
Ah, what do I do? Start a business I know nothing about? Or, keep looking for a job?
One day I log into the Job Bank, and I see a posting for a photographer!
What are the odds???
There were no odds! It blew my freakin' mind that someone actually wanted to hire a photographer!!!
The job description was vague, but I applied anyway.
I was so excited about this job that I rewrote my resume and included a cover letter. Ever word was there to sell myself - to get an interview.
Knowing I wasn't a real photographer, I bragged (humbly) about how I could learn anything! I would persevere through any challenge! I will never let you down!!!
I was so excited, but so scared when I sent off that resume.
Then I got a reply. A job interview! An interview!!!
Unfortunately, they also included a more in depth description of the job.
My heart sunk.
The only good job to come along in years, and I couldn't do it.
I had to work with kids. Just kids. All day. Every day.
There was no way I could do it. Like, really no way.
Those of you who are good with kids don't understand.
When you're timid, shy, introverted, and scared of the unknown - forget about working with kids.
What if one of them talked to me, what would I say?
You can't even understand them!
Me: Blink, blink.
Then this stupid thought came to mind.
You have nothing in life. No prospects. A useless university degree. No real photography knowledge. You'll never be anything. Ever. There is nothing out there for you. And you know there never will be.
So why not try?
You said you can learn anything. So learn.
All this inspirational talk coming from deep within meant nothing.
Only one thing convinced me to accept the interview.
I knew I would never get hired.
But at least I could say I tried.
I can say I tried!!!
I'm not a wuss, I tried!
It turned out to be the most awesome interview of my life! It was an hour long, there were three people interviewing me. I loved every minute of it. I walked away thinking, that was so fun!
It was a highly competitive position. I felt good about trying my best, and I was happy to not get the job.
Then I got an email.
I got the job.
And I almost threw up.
I think I did throw up a little bit.
I talked myself into a job that I could not possibly do.
Then the moment of relief came.
I didn't have to accept the job!!!
I just had to politely decline!
So I sat down, typed the email, and hit delete.
Because that voice came back.
Turn this down and you have nothing. Ever.
Stupid voice. I'd like to punch it.
I cheerfully accepted the position.
I'll never forget my first day on the job.
My heart raced and pounded while Oh, Canada played over the gym speaker.
Any minute now and kids would start to come in for their photo. And I would have to talk to them.
My hands shook as I welcomed the first student. I tripped over my words. All because I had to tell him to have a seat, pose like this, and smile.
It's possible you don't understand it; but it's the hardest thing I'd ever done.
Talking to people was hard enough. Telling them how to pose, was unthinkable.
And what happened if they didn't pose properly, or smile properly? I just took the picture anyway, and they looked like crap.
The Moment That Changed Everything, Forever.
We started the school year photographing High School kids.
Then we moved on to Elementary School kids.
The very first school I went to dropped a day care on us at the last minute.
A day care!!! Were they crazy???
One kid started crying, and the rest followed. It was a nightmare.
When we got to the kindergarten kids, my boss looked over my shoulder and didn't think too highly of the photos I took.
He told me I wasn't interacting well with the kids, and showed me what I had to do.
Basically act like a circus clown.
Right then and there, I knew it was all over.
Except. I've never let a boss down before. I'm being paid to do this, I have to do it.
So I did it.
And everything changed, forever.
Those kids weren't laughing at me, which is what I was afraid of, they were laughing with me!
They loved it!
I spent the rest of the school year, and everyday since then, a different person.
I talked with the older students as they waited for their photo, and found out what was making them nervous.
Little kids were smiling for real, just because I was funny in ways that they liked.
Since teachers were always the most self conscious, I tried extra hard to get a good photo of them.
I even gave up my lunch breaks to work with the super insecure students. They always walked away with a photo they loved.
Initially, kids with physical or mental handicaps scared me the most. But I knew if I really tried, I could figure out how to connect with them too.
Again, please remember, I wasn't a horrible human being. I was awkward, shy, introverted, and embarrassed.
Perhaps the reason I did so well with I did amazingly well with special needs kids and insecure teachers is that I was so different and uncomfortable myself.
Understanding each persons uniqueness helped me to make a better photo of them.
I once spent a half hour with an autistic child. It was the first nice photo that anyone has ever taken of him.
As the year went on, I got handshakes and hugs. When I came back the next year, students remembered me.
I even won a couple of national level awards for my creativity.
Learning to Act.
At first I was merely acting.
I realized most students were more intimidated of me than I was of them.
So I acted friendly.
I made up fake questions.
My empathy was a little hollow.
But then one day, I realized the acting had become real.
I loved talking with people, and helping them, and talking a really good school photo of them!
Did I Go to School for Photography?
I get that question a lot.
I feel weird saying no. I don't want people to think I'm not a real photographer.
I didn't go to college for photography.
But the truth is, I did go to school for photography.
Over a hundred schools!
What an opportunity I had!
I got to photograph thousands of people. From infants, to law students, and distinguished teachers.
I went to a lot of schools for photography! A lot!
I was clueless where to start.
A few years ago I didn't know where to start.
I thought learning photography was about learning camera settings and using big lights.
I was a shy and timid person who had a chance to become something new. I stood right there at the cross roads and almost missed it.
Many people have been transformed along the way - and I almost missed the chance.
It's tough for most people to sit in front of a camera.
Sometimes it's tougher to be behind the camera.
Being a school photographer helped me to understand myself and other people too.
Along the way, I began to develop my own unique way of photography. A way of connecting to people I photograph, and a way of photographing them for who they are.
Picture day is one of the few cultural traditions we still share.
Just know that there is a photographer out their who is trying their best. Who wants to make your kids laugh, and who wants to help your insecure teenager from forever hating the camera.
There is a photographer hoping to change lives - even if it is a cookie cutter picture.
I made this self portrait when I knew my time as a school photographer was coming to an end.
To remember that my favorite people to work with were the ones convinced that they weren't photogenic, and had never had a good photo.
To remember how fragile a teenager is. Girls, guys, especially the tough guys. Fragile.
To remember that this job taught me nothing about cameras and lighting. But I did learn about people.
It's my school picture.