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Then and Now: Jacob Slaton

Wednesday September 4th, 2013

by Liz Ream

In 2008, just after the birth of his first child, Jacob Slaton was laid off from his construction management job when the company went under. His final paycheck bounced and he spent the next several months drawing unemployment, assisting photographers, and painting houses for extra cash. Just six months later, he was a full time photographer.  A little over a year later, he was published in the New York Times.

Below, Jacob describes his journey, and his decision to “just go for it.”

What drew you to the photography industry?

On New Years Eve of 2006, my wife and I rented a cabin in the Ozarks with another couple. One night, we were all sitting around talking about our dream jobs, and we each went around the circle and said what our dream job would be and then we each said what our DREAM dream job would be. So for example – the dream job is owning your own bar or restaurant, and the DREAM dream job is something crazy, like being a travel writer, or a professional video game tester. Anyway one of my friends said her DREAM job was to be a photographer, and I found myself making a pretty convincing argument for her to do it, and then when it came around to me, I said I wanted to be a photographer too. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I knew I had to give it an honest try because I had just made this great argument about why my friend should do it, and for me to pass that up would make me a total hypocrite.

I wanted to be a photographer because I’ve always been struck by the beauty in the world. Everyone is beautiful if you light them right, and when someone has a picture of themselves where they look good and feel cool, that can be such a powerful thing for your self-confidence. I wanted to make people happy and I wanted to do that by making people feel good about themselves with great photographs.

Did you go to school for photography?

I have a bachelors degree in construction management from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I’ve never taken any photography classes – I tend to prefer learning things the hard way.

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How did you get started once you made the decision?

The decision was really made for me, rather than me making it myself. In November of 2008 I lost my construction job along with more than half the company. The economy tanked and there were no jobs to be had in construction. In the meantime, I contacted a photographer friend of mine and asked if I could assist her or shoot with her sometime and she told me to show up for a wedding a few weeks later. I started shooting weddings with her, and called all my friends to try to sell them an $80 hour-long family portrait shoot, and to my great surprise, some of them actually took the bait. I shot everything I could get my hands on: weddings, families, kids, babies, and even puppies. After a while I built up a somewhat decent portfolio and starting advertising on Google with whatever money I made shooting. A little more than six months after I lost my job I was able to stop taking unemployment checks and painting houses and just focus on photography full time.

Were there any challenges with the transition to full-time photographer?

Honestly, there weren’t many challenges with making the transition because I didn’t exactly quit a job to start shooting full time. I was already out of work and hustling up photography jobs was all I could do to make my mortgage payments. Without the unemployment checks and the part-time gig painting, we would’ve been in much worse financial trouble.

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What was your ultimate goal when switching to photography?

A long time ago I worked at a whitewater rafting company in Colorado with a guy who was an avid amateur photographer. We were having coffee one day and he was telling me he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He worked in the business office at the rafting company and he was bored with his job. I told him he should be a photographer for National Geographic and he laughed at me. He said it would be easier to get into the NBA than to shoot for Nat Geo. I told him that was bullshit because he wasn’t seven feet tall and he certainly wasn’t an athlete. So when I went into photography full time I decided it was my goal to be published in National Geographic, just to prove him wrong. In April of this year I had a photograph published on the National Geographic website. I shot the story for Reuters, so it wasn’t like Nat Geo called me directly, and it didn’t appear in the print edition, but it’s pretty damn close.

Do you feel that your management job has helped you in your photography career?

Being a construction project manager was probably the best thing I could’ve done before photography. When I’m on a big advertising shoot there are so many moving parts and people to hire to produce the whole thing. Construction taught me how to schedule things, get permits, write contracts, communicate with clients, and most importantly, deliver what the client wants on time and in budget.

Are you glad that you made the switch?

Being a photographer is the absolute best job in the whole world. I love everything about it. I love getting to collaborate with creative directors to create something that didn’t exist before. I love having a vision in my head and turning it into something real and tangible. I love the simple joy of stepping back and being proud of my work. As a photographer I’ve gotten to travel all over the country and meet the coolest people and shoot in the coolest places. I especially love that I am in charge of my own destiny – I set my own hours and take off when I need to and most importantly I get to work from home where I can shut my computer and wrestle with my kids on the floor whenever I need a break.

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What kind of projects have you worked on?

I shoot fairly regularly for the New York Times and Reuters, and my work has appeared in some really cool publications including Vanity Fair, People Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. I stay really busy these days shooting portraits for magazines and ad campaigns but I’ve also done a lot of food photography, architecture, and products, as well as trade shows and conventions. I also shoot regularly for the Clinton Foundation here in Little Rock, which has allowed me to meet and photograph some incredibly inspiring people. Just this week I photographed Buzz Aldrin, who actually walked on the surface of the moon. Crazy.

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What would your advice be to others looking to become photographers?

Just go for it. Don’t wait around until you get older and need more and more money to live on. Don’t worry about what anyone else is shooting, just get better and don’t suck. If you shoot literally every single job like it’s going to be on the cover of Vanity Fair, eventually it will be. The world cannot operate without photographs. Magazines, newspapers, and billboards would be worthless without photos, and somebody has to shoot those photos, and it might as well be you.

View more of Jacob’s work at jacobslaton.com

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