All images courtesy of Grace Chon
It’s graduation season, which means all of you young folks are probably getting earfuls of mediocre career advice from just about everyone you know, and even some people you don’t. Like, don’t be too picky; take the first job you’re offered and use it as a stepping stone. Or maybe you’re being given hollow affirmations, from CEOs with more money most people earn in their lifetimes, about thinking outside the box or going for your dreams. I’m here today to give you something a little different: a story of a woman who let her passion guide her and created for herself a lucrative business and a dream career.
Grace Chon has the kind of job we all fantasize about, one that sounds awesomely simple and loads of fun. She takes pictures of pets. While many of us toil away at boring 9-5 gigs, she spends the week marrying her two biggest passions: photography and animals.
But in the pet photography industry, Chon is considered a rock star. Also, my hero. I met her last year and worked with her on a celebrity pet profile, and was blown away by her ability to connect with animals.
Her business, Shine Pet Photos, has only existed since February 2008 (and she had bought her first DSLR just four months prior to that), but she has already been crowned Los Angeles’s best pet photographer by Tails Magazine and Fox News L.A. She’s done photo shoots for a number of celebrities, including Tori Spelling, Perez Hilton, Margaret Cho and Lisa Edelstein. And her work has been featured in national magazines such as The Bark, Modern Dog and Best Friends.
Her work has been a winding road so far, and she considers pet photography her third career. She started out with a degree in biology, and found her first crossroads between medical school and veterinary school. “As a dutiful Asian daughter who loved animals,” she quips, “vet school felt like the only option I had to merge medicine and animals.” She surprised everyone when she decided to go to art school and pursue an MFA. It was a decision her mom was adamantly against. “Art school seemed too foreign and crazy to her. Her very practical solution was for me to go to pharmacy school instead!”
Luckily, she landed a lucrative gig at an advertising firm as an art director while in school. Not only did it pay a great salary, but she was also really good at her job, and won awards for her advertising work. Her clients have included eBay Motors, Shutterfly, California Milk and the San Francisco Giants.
Still, the hours were long and the environment was uncomfortable. “Depending on where you work, it can be a very egocentric, fraternity-esque environment,” she says of the male-dominated advertising industry. “I’m naturally a quiet person to begin with, so it was sometimes a little hard for me to be aggressive. And it could get really awkward in meetings being the only female in a room full of dudes sitting around making sexually suggestive jokes.”
In October of 2007, she bought her first DSLR and honed her skills by shooting pictures of dogs at local shelters. She went with her heart, managed to monetize this hobby, and by November of 2008, she had enough clients to quit her job in advertising and concentrate on her business full-time. Understandably, she was a little nervous about breaking the news to her mom, given her reaction when Chon decided to go to art school. “She completely surprised me when she told me she completely trusted me to make the best decisions for myself, especially after having seen everything that I had accomplished in the ad world.” She credits her mom’s emotional support as one of reasons why she is so successful today.
Make no mistake; Chon is a serial overachiever who puts in a lot of work. "I started my business in the midst of complete economic meltdown, and the number of pet photographers in Los Angeles has multiplied tenfold since I started," she says. She isn't lying, either. A Google search for "pet photographer" yields over 5,000 results -- and there are nine pages of results for legit pet photographers' blogs.
Chon built her business from the ground up, used her art background to design her own website and develop her brand, and continues to act as her own PR, constantly looking for new and innovative ways to advertise her business. She still devotes part of her time to service, too, taking pictures of dogs in foster care to help them find permanent homes.
But all of the hard work has paid off. She admits, “Every step of the way, I feel like I've flowed in this new career without any resistance.”
So fear not, college grads. Cool jobs that pay a living wage do exist out there; they just require a lot of hard work and passion. She advises, “Honor who you are by doing what you want to do, and not what you think you should do!”