We’re interviewing Millennials who have been successful doing what they love. Today, we’re featuring Adam Mason, a Washington, DC “wedding photographer.”
I place Adam’s job title in quotations because that’s really only a small part of what this guy does for a living, and it’s not even how he described himself to me when I asked. Instead, he said, “I’m a visual story-teller. I want every person I take a photo of to know that they matter and have value.” That’s a bit more than your basic wedding photographer.
I want every person I take a photo of to know that they matter and have value.
But anyway, we started talking about his background and how he got to where he is today. Adam has photographed lots of weddings (five of which have been featured in the Huffington Post), Facebook’s political events, and events at the President’s Guest House. He is the lead photographer for the Smithsonian National Zoo (true story; he shot the Panda birthday party). What’s his secret to success?
Adam started off as just a normal guy, working jobs and figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. He’s worked for Apple, had a job in horticulture at a golf course, led music at a local church, and also worked on a political tour. He hasn’t always been a photographer. He wasn’t even interested in photography as a profession until he took a trip to Moldova with an organization called Convoy of Hope. He watched as the lead missionary/photographer for their team took photos of people who had never had their photo taken before, and that sparked his interest.
When he came back to the States, he decided to go back to college and finish his degree, and that’s where he started a photography business on the side. Over time he continued to grow his photography business, and eventually it became a full-time job and what it is today.
Opportunities with Non-Profits
When I said Adam doesn’t just shoot weddings, I didn’t mean that he just occasionally has a side gig doing something cool. His short-term goal is to make one international trip per month to do photography for a non-profit. So far, in the past two years he’s been to Guatemala twice, Bolivia once, South Africa once, and Ethiopia once. Each of those trips was for a different non-profit serving those communities in unique and important ways.
During his most recent experience in Ethiopia, he was documenting kids for the organization’s sponsorship program. Adam told me he was overwhelmed by the hospitality shown by the community. The organization’s whole purpose of being there, of course, was to help the community. But when they visited one woman’s hut, she immediately offered them her home as a place to sleep, and graciously offered to do whatever she could to welcome them. She was focused on serving them when they were there to serve her.
He also shoots Charity Water’s annual fundraiser every year. This gig has included taking photos of the cast of Mad Men, Friends, Sophia Bush, Seth Meyers, and Tony Hawk. But if you ask him about it, he doesn’t describe it as a cool opportunity to meet famous people; he describes it as an opportunity to tell their story (and it’s a pretty cool story).
Advice and a Lack of Expected Answers
I really thought I knew what to expect from this interview, but I was wrong. Not that I expected any arrogance; I just expected Adam to tell me more about cool things and famous people, because hey, it’s awesome that he’s done everything he’s done. This was an interview about him, after all.
I want to be an advocate for the people I’m working for.
But that’s not what I got at all. And truthfully, for someone whose brand is his own name and personality, it’s gotta be hard to stay humble, especially since your business relies on promoting yourself. His response to this dilemma was, “I want to be an advocate for the people I’m working for. Everyone has a story so I never want to post a photo and say hey, ‘look what I did.’ I want to tell stories about the people I’m photographing.” And how does he use his success? “My camera is a passport to people’s lives I might not be able to get to normally.”
This guy is sounding pretty cool—what advice does he have for someone in a career they hate? “The biggest thing I tell people is you only have one shot, what do you have to lose? If you’re not going to lose relationships or something of value then do it. There are so many people that want to pursue their dream but don’t have the money. And I say, go somewhere where it doesn’t cost so much. We’ve all got the same 168 hours in a week.” He also told me that “effort beats talent every day” which I feel pretty much sums up his path to success.
Generally, when I talk to photographers and ask what they want to do with their lives, their usual answer is, “I want to work for National Geographic.” Looking at Adam’s photos, especially of Iceland and the Grand Canyon, I could totally see this being his end goal.
But it’s not.
In fact, his ultimate dream doesn’t have much to do with photography at all. He wants to buy a few houses and open them up to felons and people who need a second chance but can’t get a house through a normal leasing structure.
Until all the wrongs are righted in the world I don’t want to do anything else.
I really had nothing to say to that. It wasn’t remotely close to any answer I was expecting. I mean, here’s a guy who’s met fancy, fancy people. His photos for the National Zoo will be forever stored in the National Archives. He shot a party at the President’s Guest House attended by ambassadors from all over the world. He’s an incredibly successful wedding photographer. It sure seems like he’s got a grasp on what most of us would call success, and that has little to do with his life goals. “I want to show people they have value. Until all the wrongs are righted in the world I don’t want to do anything else. When a kid in Ethiopia gets bitten by an insect and he needs medical care, I want him to have it.” That statement sums up Adam’s philosophy about work and success. It’s not so much about being awesome, it’s about impacting the world.
So what do you think? Does all this line up with your own definition of success?