Never Too Soon to Quit Your Day Job; From SWAT Team to Photographer
A paratrooper, a SWAT veteran, and a photographer walk into the Lunch Circuit and take a seat- they are all Jerry King of JKing Images.
“Prior to starting out with photography I spent 10 years in the Army as a paratrooper, 17 years in law enforcement and 12 of that on the SWAT team,” said King to the Lunch Circuit crowd. Wednesday’s lunch gathering was especially exciting as it was the Lunch Circuit’s One-Year Anniversary. The community of entrepreneurs came to support and learn from Jerry King, a photographer that has taken most of their headshots.
Jonathan Chambers, Community Manager of Entrepreneurship with the Cherokee Office of Economic Development, repeated the list; “Military, SWAT, photography, that doesn’t seem like a natural step, will you walk us through that leap?”
King smiled and quickly recounted the memory of buying his first camera. “It all began when I went to Best Buy to purchase an iPad 2. I couldn’t talk the kid behind the counter into selling me one because they had just been released and were all reserved. I started to leave but there was a nice woman standing behind the Canon desk. I guess the money was burning a hole in my pocket, so I bought a Canon T1I on my way out the door. I went to the Renaissance Festival that weekend and took photos of everything: flowers, dogs, cats, everything. I went back to Best Buy that Monday to return the camera and get an upgrade. I took the camera everywhere with me after that. Right there in my seat in the patrol car was my camera.”
His SWAT coworkers were not exactly fans of this new hobby, so King sought a community of photographers, but he didn’t find the support he was expecting. “I joined a meetup group with photographers and the president of the club told me that I may want to think of a different hobby. I kept taking pictures and fell in love with lighting. I am a product of Youtube University and blending failed attempts at imitating someone else’s work together. Two years later I went back to that photography club to teach two sold out workshops.”
King’s wife, Tabitha Burke, encouraged him to expand this talent into a business. “Tabitha told me that I needed to do this full time. I said I would build the business after I retire from the police department at 48. Five years before that retirement date, I had a bad day at work and decided it was time to get out of there. I resigned, started J King Images and spent the next six months wondering what I just did.”
“You bought your first camera and opened J King Images in the course of three years. You have joked about eating ramen noodles for dinner. Were there any moments when you were wondering if you weren’t going to make it to the next month?” asked Chambers.
“There’s tons of moments like that,” begins King. “We were literally down to our last two months of expenses. I was laying on the couch watching television and just sat up and said ‘headshots, we’re going to do headshots.’ We got about 12 headshots together, I dedicated a page on the website and starting blogging about headshots, and Cox Enterprise called us to shoot for one of their departments and the shoot brought a life changing amount of money. We started to take weddings and families off the website and focused on headshots and portraits.”
Chambers paused the conversation to ask the audience if anyone had their headshots taken by Jerry. Almost everyone raised their hand.
King spoke about the difficulties of starting a business in a new area and the highs and lows of finally booking shoots. While it was great to be getting work, the shoot itself proved stressful for King as he worried about what could go wrong, saying “if I mess this up, they won’t call me again.” Chambers equated King’s worry over the end product with feeling like an imposter—— a common trait of artists and King agreed emphatically. “Definitely an imposter syndrome. It’s funny, you start out and think ‘I’m great, I’m awesome, the best photographer ever. Do you see this flower, this selective color?’ You think that you’re good and then you finally get to a level where people want you to work with them, you realize you’re not that good. Two months after a shoot Tabitha will tell me that we need to get this work out there and I’ll tell her no, that was three weeks ago, I’m better now.”
Chambers asked King how he found success in such a saturated market— everyone has a phone and everyone is an Instagram photographer now. “It seems that as a professional photographer, the deck is stacked against you. How do you not get discouraged and sit in front of a client and ask them to pay you.” King answered, “It’s not so much technology but content and evoking emotion. “I used to be concerned and felt like I just needed a new camera or a new light, but those are only tools. If it all depended on the tool, photography wouldn’t exist. It has a lot to do with interaction with the client. Everything else is noise, if I sleep on that then I will never push forward. I’m obviously offering something, or else people wouldn’t be calling. I like photographing real people. I like people and I think people are hard on themselves. I like to bring out what they don’t see but everyone else does. My job is to bring out the real you, not the one you are trying to come across as.”
“What is the best piece of advice you have heard and put into action,” continued Chambers, a common question for the Lunch Circuit speaker. King replied, “You have to spend money to make money. To me, if you have X amount in your account and you need to spend 75% of that amount to make a move, like on advertising and marketing, it’s a big jump. I always heard that to make money I’d have to spend it, but it took several times for it to click in my head. I am also not afraid to fail,” King added. “You fail miserably the first few times, you bite off more than you can chew the first few times, but it’s all a learning process because your successes are only a product of the failures in your past. If I completely fall and J King Images goes bust, then we’ll just start over. Don’t be afraid to fail.”
“So what was a major loss and lesson that you learned from it?” Chambers asked in closing. King, obviously no stranger to vulnerability, jumped into a critical lesson learned in the very beginning of his career. “The first month of the business we landed a job with the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah, Georgia. We were making money hand-over-fist with this project. I remember thinking that this was easy; why spend money on marketing or a website? Eight months later and the project was over and we didn’t have any clients. We spent two years building our client list after that.”
During the Q&A portion of the gathering, an audience member asked about King’s most extreme circumstance for getting a photo. King immediately jumped into a story about a senior portrait session at Rope Mill Park in December. “It was 20 something degrees and I was waist-deep in water to get the shot. I told everyone that whatever happens— grab the camera.”
“Why were they in the water,” Chambers asked incredulously.
“They wanted the shot. I’ll lay in mud. I’ll get in the water. I’ll do what it takes to get the shot.”
Monthly ticket only event. To join us for our Special Edition Lunch Circuit to kick off year two, featuring a People’s Choice Q&A Panel, visit http://circuitwoodstock.com/events/.
The next Lunch Circuit will meet at The Circuit on June 13th from 11:30 am – 1 pm.