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Benjamin Heath on The Great Discontent (TGD)

February 18, 2015

Describe your path to becoming a photographer.

My path has been a winding one. I grew up in Indiana and started taking photos when I was a teenager. At the time, a good friend of mine worked at a one-hour photo mart. He and I each carried a little point-and-shoot Olympus Stylus around wherever we went, taking pictures to document whatever stupid stuff we did that day. My friend could develop our film for free, so we took as many photos as we wanted. We photographed everything, all the time—thankfully, this was before the days of Facebook. (laughing) I loved documenting what we did, and the big draw for me was seeing those developed photos for the first time and laughing about them.

As much fun as it was, I was horrible at taking photos, and I knew nothing about photography. I didn’t like how terrible I was; it really bothered me because I hate being bad at things. I started reading about photography and learning about exposure, ISO settings, and those types of things. Over a long period of time, I became a little bit better, but I was still so awful.

Around that same time, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after school. It’s strange to me that, in our culture, people are expected to decide who they want to be for the rest of their lives while they’re still so young. It’s such a huge decision. I wasn’t sure who I wanted to be or where I wanted to go. I did the default thing and went to the big state school, Indiana University, where I earned my undergrad degree in education.

After college, I taught at an Indiana school that served students with autism. I was broke: I made about $19,000 a year and lived in government subsidized housing. I was competing for jobs with teachers who had been laid off, but had years of experience on me. It was pretty bad. (laughing) I remember a moment when I got a flat tire and couldn’t afford to replace it. When I called my parents to borrow the $80 I needed to buy a new tire, they said, “Ben, what’s your plan? You have to realize that this isn’t working.”

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but my parents put the idea of going to law school in my head. I hadn’t ever thought of being a lawyer, but I took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and did pretty well. I applied to law schools and was admitted to a pretty good one. Then I went to law school and got pretty good grades. Then I got an offer from a pretty good firm in San Francisco.

It was a snowball effect, and one thing led to another. By the time I was 27, I found myself in the office of a San Francisco law firm, thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” (laughing) I was working as a commercial litigator, and I was miserable. I didn’t feel like what I was doing actually meant anything. I was putting blood, sweat, and tears into work for clients who I didn’t believe in or even know, and I recognized that my work didn’t push the needle for them, either. I felt like my work didn’t matter, like I didn’t matter.

What type of work did you do as a commercial litigator? I don’t think I even know what that is.

Right? What does that even mean? Basically, when two companies got into a fight, I was part of the small army of lawyers that they brought in to throw paper at each other. Every day was the same: wake up, shave, put on a suit, go to work. When I got to work I had to get on the phone and be an asshole, send an email and be an asshole, write a brief and be an asshole, go to court and be an asshole—my job was to be an asshole all day, every day. I started to think, “Man, I don’t want to be an asshole. I’m not good at it.” I’m sure there are people who disagree with that, (laughing) but I felt like I was living someone else’s life. It didn’t make sense.

Meredith Adelaide, Los Angeles, California
Meredith Adelaide, Los Angeles, California

“It’s strange to me that, in our culture, people are expected to decide who they want to be for the rest of their lives while they’re still so young. It’s such a huge decision.”

I knew my job wasn’t for me, so I thought, “What else can I do?” I wanted to figure out how to parlay my law degree into something I genuinely cared about. At the same time, I had a lot of student loan debt because law school is incredibly expensive. I decided that I wasn’t going to do anything until I finished paying my loans off. That was my number one goal, but it took a few years to do.

Around the time I finished paying off my loans, Instagram had become popular in San Francisco. Instagram has changed so much since it launched, but it started out casual. It wasn’t as artful and thought-out as it is today, but it was fun. For me, it was a good way to practice composing, because sometimes I just want to see what something looks like as a photo. It quickly became part of my daily routine. See something, take a photo, share it on Instagram.

Unbelievably—and it is so strange to me that this happened—clients started finding me on Instagram and asking me to do photography work for them. I was blown away that this little app had become a conduit to a profession I had always dreamed of being a part of. It was the catalyst to a life I never thought I could have. Throughout law school and my career as a lawyer, I was constantly taking photos, but when asked what I really wanted to be, I never said, “A photographer.” It seemed absurd, so impossible.

Were you still working your day job when you started getting clients through Instagram?

Yeah, but that changed as I started getting more photo work. There was one specific job that came along that required me to work for six or seven days, and that brought me to the point of having to put up or shut up. I thought, “If I take this job, I haveto quit being a lawyer.” Whatever I decided, it would be very important because everything would be divergent after that. I didn’t even like being a lawyer. The day I quit my job was one of the best days of my life.

Monika, Vancouver, BC
Monika, Vancouver, BC
Brian Flaherty, San Francisco, CA
Brian Flaherty, San Francisco, CA

Did you just walk in and quit immediately?

Pretty much. But the firm was okay with me leaving because they had seen it coming. If you’re unhappy at work, especially in a profession like law, people catch on. The reactions from my boss and another superior were funny. When I told them I was leaving to become a photographer, one turned and said to the other, “I’ve seen his website. He’s actually pretty good.” It was such an odd thing to hear. The tone in his voice when he said actuallyreally struck me. I smiled and knew that I was making the right choice. Walking out of that office felt great, and I haven’t looked back.

How long ago did you quit?

About a year and a half ago. I’m still kind of a baby in the commercial photography world, which is scary and exciting all at once.

What kind of work have you been focusing on? Are clients still coming to you?

A lot of my work comes through my agent. Other folks find my Instagram or Tumblr, but I do a fair amount of pitching ideas, too. I’ve worked with such a variety of clients, from a project with Burberry to a shoot with National Geographic in Africa, which I just returned from. It’s crazy to think about the kinds of people I’m meeting and working with. Everything feels like a dream, and I have a sense of foreboding about it—shit can’t be this good for this long! (laughing) I feel lucky and grateful that all of this has happened. It’s been a really cool year, and I pinch myself all the time to make sure I’m not dreaming.

Did you have an “Aha!” moment when you knew you wanted to do photography professionally?

I don’t think it was one specific “Aha!” moment; it was more an amalgam of moments. I had always enjoyed photography, but I didn’t ever ask, “How do I become a photographer?”

Taking my first photography job made me feel like I was on the right path, but there wasn’t a point before that when I believed it could be a career. I wanted to be a photographer, but I didn’t know how. Once I actually started doing it, I realized that I coulddo it. That’s when I knew that photography was not only what I wanted to do, but what I could do.

“…clients started finding me on Instagram and asking me to do photography work for them. I was blown away that this little app had become a conduit to a profession I had always dreamed of being a part of. It was the catalyst to a life I never thought I could have.”

Talie in poppy fields
Talie in poppy fields

Maybe your “Aha!” moment wasn’t realizing that you liked photography as much as it was believing that it could be a career?

Yeah. It was more like, “Aha! This is possible!”

That’s awesome. It’s interesting how growing up in the Midwest can affect you. I’ve talked to many people who grew up on the East Coast, went to art school, and moved to New York to be an artist. What? (laughing) I wouldn’t have done that because I have such a huge sense of responsibility, and I didn’t realize that you could make a living as an artist until much later in my life.

It was the same for me growing up. My parents wanted me to succeed, and their version of that was a professional career path. Whenever we talked about my future, it involved me having a traditional job, like being teacher or lawyer. There was no talk of anything that wasn’t a defined path that led directly to a job.

I also grew up in a very small town, and I had no real sense of the world around me. I was young and dumb, and I had no context to figure out who I was. It’s weird when people tell you, “Okay, you’re 18 now. What do you want to be for the rest of your life?” You don’t have any experience or frame of reference to responsibly make a decision like that.

Agreed. Have you had any mentors or people who have influenced you along the way?

Yeah. All of my close friends are photographers and shoot for a living, which is both very helpful and maybe a little harmful. It’s helpful because my friends are people who inspire me. When I’m having a shit time, I know that they can relate, and it’s great to have them to talk with. It’s a little harmful because, as much as I love my photographer friends, it would be nice to meet folks who inspire me and who work in different mediums. I crave different types of influences in my life.

It’s funny that you asked this because a mentor is something I’ve always wanted and hoped would fall into place. It just hasn’t happened yet, but it would be nice to have that person who’s been around for 10 or 15 years, who’s seen everything and has walked this path before. Everyone in my peer group is still figuring it out. Maybe we’re all just figuring it out?

Do you have a dream mentor, or someone you would be psyched to learn from?

Alex Webb and Bruce Davidson are my two of my favorite dudes. They’re fine art photographers rather than commercial photographers, but that’s what I like about them. I would love to pick their brains, but I don’t really have a dream mentor. I just want somebody who gives a shit and who has been there. If you have any ideas, let me know. (laughing)

Alright, I will. Was there a point when you’ve taken a big risk to move forward?

Quitting my day job at the law office was definitely the biggest risk I’ve taken, but also the most satisfying. I’ve made a lot of choices in life that are easy to second-guess, but I’m so happy with where I am now.

Are your family and friends supportive of what you do? How did your parents react when you told them that you weren’t going to be a lawyer anymore?

My parents have always wanted what’s best for me. I’m an only child—don’t judge me—so my parents put pressure on me to succeed. When I said I was going to quit my law job to become a photographer, they were very worried. At the same time, they also knew how unhappy I had been as a lawyer, so I think they were open to it. It was a long conversation: I had already made up my mind, so I wasn’t necessarily seeking their approval. They knew where I was coming from, but they were scared for me. But ever since they started following me on Instagram, they’ve seen that people are interested in my work. Now, a year or so later, they love that I’m a photographer. Their perception of what I do has changed quite a bit.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

Earlier this year, I volunteered with Water.org and shot with them in Kenya for World Water Day. That was the most creatively, emotionally, spiritually, and personally satisfying project I’ve worked on.

I like that people are interested in my work, for whatever reason, and I’d like to leverage that to create some good in the world, but I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m still trying to buy the idea that people like my work, so the idea that I can somehow help others with it is kind of weird.

I’m curious if you ever do speaking gigs?

I don’t, but I just signed up to teach a Skillshare class. It’s funny because speaking was such an integral part of my life as a lawyer. It was something I had to do quite a bit, but now I don’t really do it at all.

Well, maybe you’ll have some opportunities in the future. So, are you creatively satisfied?

Not even close. I don’t know what that would look like. Is it the same feeling as boredom? I don’t know that I ever want to feel creatively satisfied. That fire, that feeling of dissatisfaction, is what pushes me. There are moments when I’m sort of pleased with how a project or shoot came out, but those moments are fleeting. I’m always unsatisfied, professionally and personally. That’s part of my personality: I have a hard time enjoying what I’ve done because I feel like there is so much more to do, even though I don’t think that’s 100% healthy. (laughing)

Lauren Randolph, Los Angeles, California
Lauren Randolph, Los Angeles, California

“Taking my first photography job made me feel like I was on the right path, but there wasn’t a point before that when I believed it could be a career. I wanted to be a photographer, but I didn’t know how. Once I actually started doing it, I realized that I could do it.”

Is there anything you’re interested in exploring that you’re not doing now, especially since you’re at the start of your career?

I want to get back to doing more personal work. I’ve spent a lot of the past year establishing my career and not much time working on my personal work. That’s not necessarily a mistake, but it’s something I want to change. I have a lot of ideas I’m putting into motion that are 100% me, and I’m excited about those.

If I were to take a photo of what my career would look like five years from now, I would have the freedom to say no. That’s important. I’ve never had to say yes to something just because I needed a job, and I feel really lucky to be in that position; but I like the idea of having more control over what I’m doing. That’s where I’ll be: saying, “No,” or, “Yes, but we should do it this way.” I’d like to have more input on projects and more control in the execution of ideas.

Those are the two things I want: I’m eager to be more established so that I can have more time to do personal work and more freedom to say no. I don’t know—as a freelancer, you feel like it could all end tomorrow. Does that feeling ever go away?

I don’t think it ever does. (laughing) It almost feels like you’re getting away with something, like, “How long is this going to last?” But I can’t imagine working for someone else. If I had to, I would, but I certainly don’t want to.

Yeah. I’m not going to put a suit on again, so this has to work.(laughing)

Some of our readers might be working jobs they’re not thrilled about, or they might be young and are putting in their time. I think stories like yours are intriguing to them as a reminder that it’s possible to change your trajectory.

The biggest change for me was when I stopped being afraid of being afraid. I realized that being afraid was a good thing, and that changed my whole outlook. If I wanted to do something, I did it. Fear is a great thing, but being afraid of fear is paralyzing.

Amanda, San Francisco 
Amanda, San Francisco 
Hattie Watson, Point Reyes, CA
Hattie Watson, Point Reyes, CA

I don’t think fear ever goes away. If you’re totally cocky and not afraid of anything, then what does that say about you?

I’d be scared if I completely stopped being scared.

Yeah! So, what advice would you give to someone starting out?

There are so many different paths someone can take to reach his or her version of success. I’ve been asked this before, and it’s hard to put into words. I can’t say, “If you want to be a working photographer, you have to do A, B, and C,” because I don’t think there’s a step-by-step process. What works for one person might not work for someone else.

In general, working hard is always a good idea. So is being kind and nice—and not in a bullshit way. I know everyone has bad days, but if you’re willing to help others, that’s a catalyst for your own success: when people ask you for help, be the person who responds. Then put yourself out there, ask for help, and see who responds to you, too. Those relationships you build, the ones that help you feel like you’re not walking the path alone, make your chances of success a lot stronger.

If you could go back and do everything over again, would you do it the same way? Do you think being a lawyer for all those years served some kind of purpose?

I used to think I had wasted a lot of time because I had devoted all of my 20s to law school and being a lawyer. When I was still working, I thought, “This isn’t what I want to do. I’m wasting my life.” Now, I’m so grateful for where I am, and I feel so lucky to be here. I’d be terrified to change anything because it might mean I wouldn’t end up here. My path might be long and different from others’ paths, but I’m happy to have walked it.

I try to glean from my experiences as a lawyer whenever I can. Being a lawyer taught me how to think and how to work hard. It definitely helped with the business side of being a photographer, which is a huge part that folks who aren’t photographers don’t think about. It was good life experience, too.

Do you still live in San Francisco?

No, I moved to Los Angeles shortly after I quit my job.

I love LA. Every winter, I fantasize about moving there because New York gets so cold.

I think all of my New York friends have that same fantasy.(laughing)

San Francisco is like a big small town. I don’t want to say that I did everything there is to do there, because that’s not true. But I wasn’t inspired by it so much anymore, and I had some friends in LA. I also wasn’t sure what my income was going to be, and rent was a huge concern in San Francisco.

Do you know when you’re reading a book and a chapter ends, and there’s that blank space, that blank page before the new chapter begins? When I quit my job, I was in that blank space. I knew that a lot was going to change, but I wasn’t quite there yet. Moving to LA and starting a new career was like starting the next chapter. It felt right to do something different, to move somewhere different, and to have a new challenge.

Isla Bell, San Francisco
Isla Bell, San Francisco

How do you think LA influences your creativity or your work?

I wouldn’t say that LA itself influences my creativity per se, but the people here influence it quite a bit.

LA is a funny city, and I’m still trying to figure it out. This isn’t a new thought, but LA is like many different cities in one. I’ve only lived here for a year, and I’ve been traveling for most of that time, so the city still feels new to me. Some days I hate LA; other days I love it. But I think that’s how it is here. Everyone I talk to tells me, “It takes a couple years to figure it out, but once you do, you’ll love it.” I’m starting to feel like that. Now, when I’m traveling home from a trip, and I go to my gate and see the little screen that says Los Angeles, it feels really good.

California is such a great place to be in general because there’s so much you can get to within a couple hours. Palm Springs is less than two hours away, the coast is easy to drive up, and Joshua Tree National Park is nearby. California has snow, desert, and mountains. There’s so much around here to explore.

What neighborhood are you in?

I’m in West Hollywood. It’s a cool spot, and it’s pretty walkable. That was one of the main worries I had about moving here: having to drive everywhere. But there’s a bunch of stuff in my neighborhood that’s easy to walk to. I don’t leave my neighborhood much because driving in LA is kind of a big deal. (laughing) I need to work on that.

Is it important to you to be a part of a creative community?

Yes, a thousand percent. The photographers Chris Ozer andTheron Humphrey both inspire me, and they’re both close friends. How cool is that? I met both of them through photography and we’ve known each other for a few years. I know Chris’ family; his boys are so adorable. I see his work and think, “Holy shit, Chris is so good. I’m just going to text him and tell him!” I have that power, and it’s crazy. It’s the same with Theron: he has such good ideas; they’re so unique. His work makes me smile. I don’t know who I would be without those guys in my life, and I would feel pretty lost if I wasn’t part of a creative community. I haven’t thought about what it would be like to do photography alone. It’s scary enough as it is—to do it alone would be terrifying.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It looks different every day, especially when I’m traveling. Recently, I went to South Africa to shoot for Big Cat Week, which is something the Nat Geo WILD channel does. We were in South Africa for about five days: we woke up at 4am to go watch animals, rested during the day while they slept, and then went out at dusk to watch them again. I worked with a professional cat tracker named Boone Smith, who apparently collared a snow leopard last year, which he equated to being the Holy Grail of big cats. It was great to talk to him and learn about his life. They wanted me to document Boone and what he does, and it was so freaking cool—I looked at a lion from 10 feet away. I’ll remember that experience for a long time.

It sounds like you travel frequently for assignments. What does your day look like when you’re home in LA?

Shit stacks up while I’m away. There’s a lot of admin work that comes along with running your own business, like sending invoices and paying bills. Sometimes I’m good at taking care of those and sometimes I’m not, but they still need to be done.

I don’t know that there is a typical day, though. Some days, I’ll plan my next shoot or a new personal project. Sometimes I’ll go to the gym or ride my motorcycle or go to dinner with friends. Having worked in an office for so long where every day was very similar, it’s nice to have variety.

What music are you listening to right now?

I just went to an awesome Future Islands show. I’ve loved that band for a while, but it was my first time seeing them live. The lead singer, Samuel Herring, is a really interesting performer.

Right now, I’m listening to Caribou and Future Islands, and I love Washed Out and Lord Huron. I also listen to a lot of random playlists of songs I like. The War On Drugs’ latest album, Lost In The Dream, is my favorite of the year.

Do you have any favorite movies or TV shows?

I don’t watch much TV, but I do watch a lot of documentaries on Netflix. As for movies, I just saw Interstellar. It was definitely interesting and entertaining, but I can’t say that it was a favorite.Birdman was really good; it was shot was so differently.

Do you have any favorite books?

I have a weird love for Kurt Vonnegut. He and I both grew up in Indianapolis, and I discovered him when I was young. It was inspiring to me that such a genius was from the same place as me. I recently finished reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. If you have time, that’s a good one—best read I’ve had in a while.

What is your favorite food? And don’t go bragging about the Mexican food in LA.

(laughing) I was going to say that I probably eat too much Mexican food. I’m trying to live a little healthier these days, but Mexican food is my favorite. I usually go to a place near me called Escuela Taqueria, but I’ve eaten there so much that I’m on the lookout for a new taco spot.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

Legacy? Oh, shit. The idea that I could leave a legacy is kind of beyond me.

I want to live a story that I’m proud to tell. When I was working in law and people asked me what I did, I hated saying that I was a lawyer because it didn’t feel like me. Now, I’m living a story I love to tell. If I leave any legacy, I hope people will say that I did what I loved to do, and that I did a pretty good job.interview close

Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Joshua Tree National Park, CA

via Benjamin Heath on The Great Discontent (TGD).

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