Unleashing Potential: My Journey into Commercial Photography

This is the story of how I got here.

I’ve always wanted to create. My mind simply cannot rest. I want to go, go go, do, do, do. I feel blessed that my job specifically fulfills my need to create. It does not matter that I am helping someone else create, I simply enjoy the act of creating. When I look back, there were no alternatives. Every choice was fate. Every step was part of a singular journey.

During the 1950s there was a civil war in China between the nationalists and the communists. They had joined forces years earlier to defeat the Japanese invasion, however when that war was won, it left a power vacuum, and the two parties began to fight each other. The communists won. And the nationalists had to flee. It is out of this chaos that my grandparents and my baby parents landed on the island of Taiwan. There, the nationalists regrouped, licked their wounds and found a way to thrive. Taiwan became a manufacturing giant globally, and the island grew rich.

In 1978 I was born. I lived in Taiwan for nine years, and then came to America to join the whole family on my mother’s side in Cupertino, California. How fortunate we all were. Right in time for the raise of the Silicon Valley. We didn’t know it at the time. Life was a struggle in this foreign place. Imagine being parents of young children, moving to a new land where you have no job, don’t speak the language–and you have hungry kids going through their own dramas of going to school, getting picked on for wearing out of fashion shorts, or the funny smelling foods they ate. But as children do, they adapt, and we adapted as best we could.

There is certainly a sense of duty. Such as, I owe something to my culture, and the struggles we’ve been through. Being good at what we do is the goal in life. Keep reaching higher, do it better, faster, prettier, so naturally, whatever I did, I made sure I did it very well. It wasn’t always that way, I remember losing screws, springs, and not being able to reassemble the toys I’d take apart.

I love seeing. I love having eyes. I love the colors, shapes, forms, and functions of this three-dimensional world. The way tree leaves rise and fall, as if they are breathing. I love feelings, moments, ideas, and the act of existence. And I love to remember them as best I could. Intuitively wanting to take a mental picture.

Fast Forward; My dad had an old Canon AE-1 I’d pretend to shoot with as a kid… I had a really great highschool art teacher… I was the yearbook photographer… I nearly failed my first photography class in college…

In college, I asked if I could sit in on the gross anatomy lab sessions so that I could sketch cadavers. That was interesting. You could practically be eating a tuna fish sandwich while keenly observing an ex-person’s quartered leg. It triggered a fascination with the nature and the natural process, as well as a deep appreciation of the human form. Which later expressed itself when I began working as a fine art figurative sculptor.

I also tried my hand at a number of different business ventures, I had a very entrepreneurial mind, and looking for ways to make money was fun and exciting, as long as I was following my passion. Plus the act of learning something and getting into it deeply fed my curious nature. I rode on the bike team, worked at a bike shop, learned to build bike frames from the local master, and became a frame painter. I played in a band, recorded a demo album and built my own guitar. I taught photoshop and welding at the UC Davis Extension school. I designed, produced and sold calendars. I learned web design and started my own graphic company. College was a time of much trial and error.

I graduated in 1999 and sprinted to the heart of Silicon Valley to get in on the dotcom boom. But I was a few years too late, within a year, the market crashed, followed by 9/11. Bad news for many, but a blessing for me. I hated corporate web design. It sucked the soul out of me. I loved everyone I worked with, but I just wasn’t meant to sit in a cubical for nine hours straight.

With a severance package and bi-weekly unemployment checks, I bought a digital camera and moved to San Francisco. And boy, moving to SF was everything. My eyes were opened like never before. I woke up. I saw my life from a different perspective. Before this moment, I believed that I was going to make a lot of money using investment strategies I had learned in college. I would make a fortune before the age of 35, and then devote my life to art after that. I thought that I could just bury my head in the sand for 14 years so that I could finally be free to just create. I was majorly mistaken.

When I moved to SF, I started realizing that I would be okay. That I could make a living somehow. I took a few courses from the city college. Learned about lighting and 4×5 cameras. I really hit it off with the lighting professor, Marshall Burman. We had lunch every Wednesday at his favorite Chinese food restaurants. We would have $8 Chinese food, laugh and talk about life, and art. Through him, I got my first photography related job. I became a studio manager. It was an amazing experience.

Cheryl Maeder was a teacher of life. We spoke openly about all topics. And she was an amazing advocate for my potential. Somehow up until this point, I’ve been completely bottled up. I was very shy and didn’t understand how to interact with the world. She taught me how to be kind to others and to think of others. I began understanding how to organize a shoot, how to produce it, how to feed people, and take care of people. How to read people’s musical preferences. In addition, this was right at the time of the great digital SLR revolution in advertising photography. It was an entirely new thing, and nobody understood it. Photographers knew film. How to use polaroids to set everything up. Running film in snips, and writing out the development order, rushing to the lab, and rushing from the lab. That’s what assistants did. No one knew anything about computers. And barely anyone had websites. I was at the perfect place at the perfect time.

Everyone in my family is a software engineer. I have had computers since I was 10 years old. I had the original photoshop version 1.o. I had a handhelp Logitec scanner, that you moved with your hand, and it wasn’t even wide enough to do one picture, you had to stitch it together. My first job, at 14, was photoshoping a person’s face to demonstrate how plastic surgery was going to correct some issues. I graduated with a degree in graphic and web design. I have shot with digital cameras since ’96. Yes. I was in high demand. Everyone needed my skills, and we could just set our price, because the value was incredible. I would often charge $500-$1000 per day including rentals. And at the height, I was booked 45 weeks out of the year. You do the math, it’s a lot of money. Even better, I often would just work two weeks on, two weeks off. It was great. And I explored all sorts of art, psychology, and religion.

Assisting was an incredible experience. Working for different photographers, understanding personalities, and learning tips and tricks, and getting first hand experience with how to do just about anything. It was a cush gig. But ultimately I wasn’t doing what I have always wanted to do. I want to be the creator. I didn’t want to do it for someone else anymore. It isn’t a coincidence that the transition took place soon after my son was born. I knew what I had to do. I was maxed out as a full-time assistant. If I wanted to earn more, I have to make it on my own.

Scary? I was kind of waiting to be scared, but truth is, I started getting gigs immediately after the transition. In the first year, I doubled my income.

The greatest challenge now is my ego, my psyche, my demons. The mindset needs to change from Assistant to Photographer. For this, I used an amazing artist coach. She set me straight. We talked every week for a year. I would be shooting months at a time, and there would be no time to talk except 7 o’clock in the morning and she did it with me. We talked about fear. We dug deep, and uncovered some unnecessary habits. She also gave me insight into the industry.

The first few years were filled with fear and anxiety. Needing to build the bread and butter accounts. Constantly negotiating. Constantly learning really crazy things, like where to rent a tarantula trainer. How do you make it snow in June? What do you give your clients for Christmas? Or photo licensing and copyrights. How about learning Quickbooks, corporate filings, and payroll and taxes!

Now that we are a few years in, and I’ve built my name and reputation, it’s a little less stressful, but the Asian American drive still remains. Always looking to expand, to do more and better. Kuoh photography is growing, we are now a team of 4. We are adding video to our services, we are positioning ourselves for the future of photography. Nearly everything I learned business wise from people I’ve assisted are now out-of-date. It’s a fun and exciting time and I’m excited to share it all via social media. We have Behind the scenes videos, and video blogs, and written posts coming out weekly, and it’s just getting better and better.

What’s your story, please share it with me in the comments section. I would love to know!

Cheers, Thomas

Thomas Kuoh