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Meet Jessica Whitehead of JWhiteheadPhoto in Downtown Culver City

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jessica Whitehead.

Jessica, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in Elkhart, Indiana, which is best known for being the RV Capital of the World and of course the Fighting Irish. While I didn’t find Northern Indiana to be particularly exciting while growing up, I never realized a hobby inspired by my surroundings would later become my career.

Trying to pinpoint the moment I fell in love with photography is hard to say. My family was full of hobbyists and professional photographers so I’ve been immersed in the medium for as long as I can remember. My family took notice early on that I was also developing an interest in photography. When I was in the 3rd grade on a family trip, I bought a tiny purple camera not much bigger than a matchbox and it was basically a pinhole camera. Sadly, my parents didn’t seem to think it was a real camera and eventually it was thrown out one day. I’ve been diving back into old photos lately and I would *love* to know how those turned out!

Then a few years after that, one grandpa who was a hobbyist gifted me his old Pentax K1000. At the time I had no idea how the camera worked, I had only used point and shoots. I shot a couple of rolls of film and none of it was properly exposed so I assumed it didn’t work because I didn’t know about “user error” yet. Regardless, I thought the camera was super cool and kept it so I could look like a pro. When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I joined 4-H doing random craft projects wishing I could enter more interesting categories. My aunt who is ten years older than me, was also a member and always entered photo projects every year. At that time, I wanted to do anything she did so when I was old enough, I entered as many photo projects as I could. This is when I started to pay attention to the life happening around me and knew these things needed to be documented.

When it came time for college, my photo teacher spoke highly of Brookes Institute in Santa Barbara. I grew up being the “Anywhere but here” kid but moving all the way to California right away seemed a little extreme for me. I searched art schools around the Midwest but none of them felt right. Honestly, they were too close to home and just more of the same familiar ways of life. This is when I found Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. I had only been to Savannah once and didn’t even tour the school, I just knew it was right. To make the transition easier, I knew at least three other people from home who were also accepted to SCAD.

Funny enough, while I was at SCAD, I started to burn out on photo. Sophomore year I contemplated dropping out because one professor and I didn’t mesh well and made me question everything I thought I loved. I started to wonder if I should be pursuing this career or if I was just doing it because that’s all I had known. A good chunk of college, I felt like I was kind of going through the motions. It wasn’t until senior year when I discovered printmaking; even through all the nervousness my creativity started to come back to me. My Intro to Printmaking class really bonded and I honestly think this is when I started coming out of my shell and learned to bounce ideas off of my peers and wasn’t afraid to share my opinion. We collectively fell in love with the medium and continued to keep taking the same printmaking classes together the rest of the year.

Once I graduated, I stayed in Savannah for the summer trying to figure out where I was supposed to go. Growing up, I always planned on moving to New York City but Los Angeles was now on the table. I had accepted an internship with Jill Greenberg that later fell through because of the timing. Most of my graduating class ended up in New York but I chose the sun and warmth of Los Angeles. When I finally built up the nerve to make the move, I packed two suitcases and booked a one-way flight. I had no job prospects. No apartment of my own. I didn’t know what it was like to be this unprepared. When I got to LA, I hit the ground running by sending my resume to every photographer, camera store, and studio based in the LA area. I spent entire days on job boards, Craigslist, and Google trying to find anyone who’d talk to me. I had taken a couple of meetings for different positions but ultimately was told I had too much experience and would become bored with the position. How many college grads get told they’re TOO experienced? It was surreal because I knew that wasn’t true.

Eventually, I found an internship with a celebrity photographer and accepted a job at Calumet Photographic to work the film counter. A college professor suggested getting a job in a rental department would be key to meeting photographers and producers. I accepted the film counter position knowing I would talk myself into transitioning to the rental department at some point. When the sales floor was slow or I just wanted to hide from customers, I would go into rentals and hang out with the guys. I knew if I ever wanted to make the switch I had to become friends with them so they didn’t hire from outside! About two months later, the rentals manager called me over and said one of his guys was quitting and said he was adding me to his department. Sure enough this is when I started meeting working photographers I later became friends with and still assist to this day. It felt great knowing I was actually taking the steps towards my goals!

In 2014, I left Calumet because I knew I had exhausted my time there. I had eventually taken over the department when my manager moved on but the company was already struggling. Running the department at 25 was great experience for me until I realized I was never going to get the official title change and the raise I deserved so I accepted a position at a photo studio in West LA and moved on. Over the next few years, I would work for other rental houses, studios, and started to assist photographers I would meet from overtime at my other jobs.

In more recent years, I have taken the leap into being freelance full time. Currently, I am working as a photo assistant, shooting for new clients, and also dabbling in producing shoots for others. Having my hands in multiple projects at one time excites me because I’m allowed to continually learn and be inspired by my peers. Nearly every production I find myself wearing multiple hats because I strongly believe it’s a group effort. On children’s shoots, I’ll jump in to make the kids laugh if they’re hitting their wall for the day, or I’ll run the fan for hairstylists if they’re working on the next talent, or watch the computer with my mediocre teaching skills if the digital tech needs to take a call. Being on set should be equal parts fun as it is exhausting and egos should be checked at the door.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
While I was given a lot of great opportunities when I first moved to Los Angeles, it wasn’t always easy. I spent many years struggling to figure out if I had made the right choices. I wish I could say I took advantage of being surrounded by free equipment all the time to develop an amazing portfolio in my free time. I wasn’t doing that. I wasn’t inspired. I stopped shooting, feeling jaded and like I should be doing something else. Just like every creative at some point, I fell into a habit of comparing my work against other professionals and thinking no one would even hire me because my work wasn’t as good.

At one point I moved to the San Francisco area convinced I was done, I was getting into a new field. Well, the exact opposite happened. Weeks after I moved, I started getting more calls to work on shoots in LA. I took some of them not fully convinced I wanted to be assisting anymore but I needed a paycheck and it was with friends. When I realized the tech industry was not for me, I accepted a studio manager position for Stephanie Rausser who was a veteran in the advertising photo world. Finally, someone who didn’t know me and saw I was more than someone working with equipment all the time! Here I learned a ton about production and really paid attention to how Stephanie approached photos. It was never static and always fun. Stephanie and her family ended up relocating to Bali and the lease on my apartment was up so I made the decision to move back to LA. I was already traveling down monthly for photoshoots so it only made sense.

Ever since moving back, I’ve watched myself and my career flourish in new ways. I started working with new photographers who inspire me and it didn’t feel like work anymore. Still reluctant to shoot, my friends had other plans. Knowing I would never say no when they need help with something, they all started hiring me for various shoots because they saw the potential in me that I couldn’t. Slowly that love for photographing started coming back to me and I’m beyond thankful for the slight arm twisting of my friends.

Will the road stay smooth? Absolutely not, but I know how to navigate a little better now.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
My work is mostly known for catching those in between moments. Whether I’m shooting an event or a wedding, or just personal projects, I like to shoot when no one is paying attention. Catching that moment when someone is just living allows the viewer to later create a narrative. The same goes for my stylized shoots. I like to keep the subject moving and interacting with their surrounds so it feels authentic and not a static pose.

What were you like growing up?
Growing up, I was the oldest of my siblings and cousins so as the first child, you sometimes feel like an experiment. I had a deep desire to explore but was also cautious to not get in too much trouble. I also had a fear of not letting my brother get in trouble so I was constantly worried for him. Why? I wish I could tell you where that fear came from!? After a while, I started to become a little less timid and would go on “adventures” across a farmer’s field knowing he hated kids and it would not end well if he caught us but the best part of the creek runs there or break into someone’s backyard to jump on their trampoline while they weren’t home. Normal kid stuff, right? Like every good Midwest girl, I played softball until my junior year of high school, taking a year or two off. I loved being a part of a team and have always loved a good competition.

All in all, I was a good kid who had a slight obsession with pop-punk bands. I could have been passing the time in much worse ways.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Personal Photo: Melissa Coulier, Photos: Jessica Whitehead

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