My Portfolio

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Dream Realized: Professional Print Journalist Becomes a Professional Photographer!

This post has been a long time coming. I wanted to tell you guys the good news as soon as it happened, but I think I had to really accept that my dream had finally come true before I could share. I took a buyout from the Denver Post in November, ending a 15-year career as a print journalist to pursue my photography passion full-time! My last day at the Post was 11-29-11. I grew up at the Denver Post; experiencing some of the greatest accomplishments of my career to date. In 1997, I received several awards, as well as a 1997 Pulitzer nomination for "Breaking the Cycle," a personal column I wrote about my childhood experiences growing up on welfare. And I was among the DP staffers who shared the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for our breaking news coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. Heck, my friends at the Post even sent me a huge bouquet the weekend I closed on my first new house in 2004. And when the tides turned, they helped me weather some of the worst tragedies of my life, including my mother's untimely death at the age of 48, and a recent car accident that would have claimed my life had I not been granted a miracle and a guardian angel.

Apparently others knew long before I did that my destiny would one day take me away from the Denver Post where I had fully expected I would retire from. When I sat down to speak with Denver Post Editor Greg Moore, he told me this: "I knew you were leaving the Post." I asked him why he thought that when it hadn't occurred to me to ever become a full time photographer until a few months ago. "I could see your passion just by reading your Tweets and your blog posts. You were learning something new everyday, and you were totally excited by it." Many years ago Greg hired me to shoot his family's portraits. I remember the look on his face when he pulled out his check book and asked me how much it would cost. When I said, $150, he did a double take and my heart sank because I thought I had charged the head editor of the Denver Post too much money (can you say FIRED, anybody?) "You aren't charging enough for your work," Greg said. "The fact that you drove all the way out here to shoot these portraits in our home was worth $100 alone, and that's not even getting to the time you've spent shooting and what you will be editing!"

WHEW!!!!

That was my first lesson in pricing for the value of my work, something I am still struggling with now especially in a bad economy when photography is considered a luxury item. A few years later Greg paid me $150 for one framed print of "Teri's Rose" after he saw it hanging on display at the Heidi's Deli in the downtown DP building. He hung it in his office until his secretary told him he should probably remove it since Teri worked in our office as an editorial assistant! ;) Always loved you for your willingness to do that, Greg. You rock!

It still shocks me to say that I'm not working for the industry that has been such an integral part of my personal and professional development. I was just a wee lass when I started as a news intern at the DP in 1996, fresh out of college with my degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from the University of Iowa. Once I was hired full-time, I worked in the news department covering nightside GA, then on to numerous city beats including Denver Northeast neighborhoods, Boulder and Aurora. I spent my last 8 years working my first dream job as a features reporter in the lifestyles section. I honestly believe that the work I produced in the last three years of my Denver Post tenure featuring articles about sex, dating and relationships were the best written work of my life, where I had finally found and embraced my own voice. One of my last relationship articles about GPS-enabled smart phone dating apps appeared on the Front Page of the newspaper, definitely a crowning achievement. The skills I gained there are far more numerous to count, and will continue to give me credibility and a solid foundation as a writer.

You want to know how I was able to make this transition that started five years, ago back when I was too afraid to take my camera out of its box because it cost more than $1,000? Well, it was one big thing and a lot of little things leading up to it.

When I survived my car accident in July, it forced me to think about my mortality and question if I had been living an authentic life. Somewhere along the way, my love of photography had become equal to or even surpassed my life-long love of writing. And my desire to focus on this new creative adventure wasn't going to be denied! I often dreamed about studio lighting setups and shooting subjects in far away locations. It was time for me to take the next step...and you know me...I'm not just gonna stroll...I'm gonna RUN!!!

I would like to thank Eric Strom for his patience in teaching me aperture, and helping me master the basic skills I initially struggled with in my first digital photography class. To think that I almost thought about dropping that class because I couldn't understand the concepts. Eric's tutelage resulted in my "Aha moment!" when everything clicked, and I suddenly knew I had the ability to speak photography! Just another push from my first photography instructor Efrain Cruz sealed the deal for me when he told me not to drop the class, that I DID have an eye and that if I stayed the full month with him, he KNEW I would be able to do it! Thanks for your belief in me even then Efrain!

I want to thank Elana Jefferson, one of my editors for trusting me to shoot images of her family, including her daughter's sunflower portraits, a Halloween party and holiday photos. Can't wait to do the candy store shots we had planned with Edie, Elana! Thank you for being a constant cheerleader, going to bat time and time again to have my photography appear in the Denver Post. And I believe it was her advice that broke through the din in my fearful mind when I agonized over whether to take the buyout. I'm talking not sleeping, barely eating, crying in the bathroom stall at work kind of anxiety about if this career move was feasible. I was afraid that I would lose everything I had achieved including my house, my car and the prestige of being a reporter. Even though the industry is suffering an identity crisis right now, readership is low and advertising is nearly gone, folks have to admit that it says something when you can say "I'm a reporter at the Denver Post." And that's not even counting the loss of a getting a definite paycheck every two weeks! One co-worker couldn't stop the words from escaping her mouth: "Are you CRAZY????!!!" Of course she tried to downplay what she had uttered, but she was only saying what I know so many people were thinking. Hell, I was thinking it too!

"It's a no-brainer," Elana told me. Not only had I been tirelessly building my photography business behind the scenes for five years while I still cranked out copy for the DP, but Elana said it was extremely wise of me to have garnered a new skill set at a time when journalism is so wounded. Nothing is forever. Nothing is sure. Don't let your fear stop you from taking advantage of this opportunity. "Take the money and run!!!" she said. Long time Denver Post reporter Jeff Leib was the nail in the coffin, so to speak, that finally gave me peace of mind when I turned in my paperwork to accept the buyout. I remember being afraid that just saying I was interested in the buyout would blacklist me among my co-workers. Jeff reassured me that the union protected its members from things like that. And that all I had to do was ask myself: What makes you happy? Right now, nothing makes me feel more alive than when I'm practicing my new craft of photography. I had to take the risk or forever regret it.



I remember times when I would come into the office and find photography books on lighting and posing that just randomly appeared on my desk. No note, nothing to let me know who left it. Just an unspoken angel who encouraged me by acknowledging that my passion for photography wasn't a passing notion, but something solid, something real. I kinda think it might have been the features editor, Suzanne Brown! Thank you Boss Lady! On my last day at work, Suzanne gifted me with these two books she had been saving for me, Night and Low-Light Digital Photography and Boudoir Photography, both must-haves for the type of photography I love to shoot! I also appreciated the emails I often received from co-workers passing along information about an upcoming seminar or workshop that might help me improve my photography -- yet another gentle push to show that maybe I did have something worth pursuing.

And last but not least, all hail to Cyrus McCrimmon, one of the best features photogs ever. Cyrus always took my photography seriously, answered all of my stupid noob questions and allowed me to watch him work his own magic whenever I was lucky enough to get paired with him while writing my articles. I will never forget the pride I felt when page designers mistakenly thought that several photos I had actually shot were taken by Cyrus. That was the day my photos appeared as a full page spread in the lifestyles section featuring a Fairplay dome house, right next to the section cover article that also bore my byline. Talk about a one-two punch!

Photos of Keith and Sylvia Wortman's

"Not many people are gifted with the wonderful ability to use both word and visual images - you are!!" said Barry Staver, a former DP staff photographer and owner of Barry Staver Photography.

On top of all that, I think what's going to help propel me and set me apart professionally is yet another skill set I gained while at the DP: social networking. I learned how to blog, Tweet and Facebook -- anything to drum up new sources and more readership. It started with the DP's Homegirls blog that I co-wrote with Elana, which is now called "Weekend Features." I remember having a hard time learning how to blog and foolishly thinking to myself, "Blogging isn't REAL journalism!" Boy was I ever wrong...it's now the future of the community journalism movement.

So what am I going to do next? I plan to combine my talents into a new umbrella company called Picture Your World Communications. It will of course feature Picture Your World Photography, but will include two new divisions: one for contract journalism services such as editing and writing press releases, etc and hosting blogs. DenverSistahDating.blogspot.com launched this week, and you can expect CountertopCook.blogspot.com to be going online very soon. The well from which my writing flows is long from dry. To that end, I will seek opportunities for freelance writing. I just turned in an application to write about sex, dating and relationships for examiner.com (wish me luck on that).

So the moral to this long-winded story: I still am in woeful need of a copy editor. ;) No, but seriously, don't ever question the impact you may have an another person's life just by doing the little things to let them know they are cared for, supported and uplifted. Everybody I've mentioned in this post plus all the others I didn't helped make me become who I am becoming. I can go all the way back to when my elementary school principal used to oversee me walking home from school so the kids wouldn't bully the new girl (they used to run behind me throwing rocks, ala "Run Forest, Run!)But I won't do that. A little more recently a kind elderly couple from Iowa took me under their wing when I went to college and are now my adopted grandparents for life. And even more recently, the "someone" who left photography books on my desk like pearls of wisdom and growth.

It all matters. You matter. Thank you!

You've come with me this far. Let's keep it moving...
Photo by FMJ Photography

2 comments:

Jason Peckovitch said...

I'm very proud of you Sheba! Congrats on taking the next step. I really hope it works out for you. Dumb question but what would a copy editor do?

Sheba Wheeler said...

Thanks Jason! Basically a copy editor reviews an article, newsletter, email or some other type of media checking for style, accuracy, spellchecking and other things to improve the text. For example, Cheryl will be contracting me out to copy edit some of the internal paperwork from her department, write news/press releases, etc. etc. Does that help?

Best Posts

Picture Your World Photography is a premiere photographer in the Denver, Colorado Photographer community on MarketingTool.com.