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Meet Southbay Content Producer: Shawna Wilson

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shawna Wilson.

Shawna, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
My interest in photography began in my high school yearbook class. I found myself constantly volunteering to attend various events so that I could photograph people outside of the classroom & get to see them doing the things they loved. My school had fairly decent cameras and equipment so I was exposed to high-end camera equipment that I would otherwise not have been. I became hooked and as my graduation present, I asked my parents to buy me a camera. They bought me a Nikon D40 & the rest is history.

After high school, I moved to Southern California for college. I attended Long Beach State where I majored in marketing & minored in photography. I took pictures of everyone I could & eventually came to learn that my passion lied in portraits & high fashion photography. I was fortunate to have really beautiful, wonderful friends who would let me photograph them & play around with their makeup, hair, wardrobe, poses, etc. What started out as me adding too much black lipstick & eyeliner soon transformed into a strong ability to capture people & clothing in a really edgy way. I loved to explore different poses & body shapes, pushing my models past their comfort zone to capture that one perfect shot. I usually tell models “If the pose makes your body feel uncomfortable, it’s probably just right!”

My college roommate, Aqueela, was a fantastic tool for me to learn posing. She was an aspiring model/actress who was down for anything. She would climb on rooftops, style her hair a mile high, shoot in front of crowds of onlookers- just to create art. It was such a symbiotic relationship because we were both helping one another build our portfolios. She also introduced me to a lot of her modeling friends who were wanted to shoot with me. I was truly blessed to have so many wonderful women in my life that helped me dip my toes into photography & directing people.

In 2010, I was asked to be a part of a growing art coalition called RAW artists. I had my first art show where I & several other artists were able to sell tickets to support the organization & show our art at a fantastic venue in Long Beach. I displayed about ten of my favorite pieces & ended up selling two of them. Through this organization, I was also introduced to several aspiring clothing designers from FIDM who asked me to photograph their clothing. I saw it as yet another industry relationship being formed by two artists utilizing each other’s crafts. It was fantastic & I loved the creative reliance we had on one another. FIDM was a create place for me to meet folks who had interesting and more Avant-Garde pieces of clothing that I could shoot for free.

Once my portfolio was more build up, I created a website for myself & joined several community boards searching for models to shoot with. Sites like ModelMayhem were my first step at meeting fresh faces in the LA area who wanted to shoot with me for trade only. Eventually, this led to models reaching out to me on their own & it led to a steady stream of work.

When I reached a place where I felt confident behind the camera shooting with models & I felt confident with my level of professionalism I began charging for my services. I was mostly shooting headshots & the occasional small clothing company. I still did a ton of art projects on the side for my own enjoyment as well. I found myself equally loving the retouching & editorial phase of photography. I became very proficient in Photoshop just by watching Youtube videos. Now I would almost say that I am as strong at retouching as taking the photos themselves.

I now work as a content producer for an advertising agency in Los Angeles with photography as my side passion. I always feared that if I used photography as my sole profession & livelihood that I would get burnt out on it & I would be shooting for someone other than myself. I use photography now as something I do for myself, something that is dictated only by me. It’s also a nice supplemental income when I shoot things like engagement photos, headshots, commercial brands, etc.

Has it been a smooth road?
In LA, the most difficult challenge is getting out and actually meeting people in this industry willing to give you the time of day. LA is so saturated when it comes to photographers and art in general. Everyone who has an iPhone loves to say they are a photographer and quite honestly, they can be. It’s very simple now to get your hands on the equipment and technology it takes to produce a gorgeous photo. That’s why networking is something you have to CONSTANTLY be doing. Handing your card out to anyone and everyone who asks & just constantly promoting your website as an online portfolio. It’s also about who you know. That old adage is just so true. Because I started doing photography at a young age, I was fortunate to know a lot of aspiring models/actors who would let me shoot them. But once I had shot all my friends 100 times, it was tricky finding people who wanted to shoot especially because there are so many talented photographers in LA to compete with. I can’t tell you how many people I have emailed about shooting & just never heard back from. With so many photographers to choose from, I don’t blame people for being selective.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
This is a tough one. I feel like I still haven’t had my “Oh wow” moment yet with my photography career but I did love being able to buy myself a new camera last year with the money I saved up from other photography jobs. That was pretty fulfilling especially given the fact that photography isn’t my primary job. It’s my secondary, weekend “side gig.”

Tell us more about the struggles you’ve faced along the way.
Oh definitely. Los Angeles is a tough market to break into especially when it comes to the field of arts. The market here is just so saturated with photographers, artists, models, etc. That can be a blessing but also a curse. On one hand- there are so many people to learn from & they are right at your finger tip. On the other hand- that also means twice as many folks to “compete” against. It’s all about networking & who you know. In LA there are a lot of folks who call themselves photographers; some of them are fantastic and well-trained and others are just weird guys shooting young women with their iPhones. It can be hard to break through the noise and create a name for yourself as someone kind of in the middle. I wasn’t the best of the best nor was I just shooting around on my iPhone. Eventually, I was able to shoot with enough people where my name actually carried weight & word of mouth really helped me.

Is LA a good place to do what you do?
Of course, Los Angeles can be a great place for artists. There are tons of fantastic locations with a lot of diverse environments within driving distance (desert, beach, forest, urban). There are also a lot of art walks & events where you can familiarize yourself with the community & see what others are doing. It’s easy to be inspired here. Not to mention the plethora of great models and people to shoot. I would just recommend really knowing the technical side of things before trying to compete in this market. The best photographers in the world live here. You have plenty of time to perfect your own style and POV but the technical side of photography and photography equipment is your foundation. Those are the things that folks are less forgiving about when trying to teach you or when paying you to shoot them.

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