As a commercial photographer I am constantly creating content for clients. As much as I love my jobs, I inevitably reach a point where I find myself with a hankering for my own personal creative outlet.
This eventually leads me down a path to my absolute favorite part of being a professional photographer – the “Personal Project.” When it comes to my personal projects, I always like to take them a step further and use them for a cause greater than just beefing up my portfolio.
The “When I Grow Up” project was no exception!
The inspiration behind the “When I Grow Up” project was activated by my sister, Malisa Cawood, and her 5th grade students. All 5th grade students are required to complete a career project, in which they research a career of their choice and present information to their peers.
As an extra credit component of the project, students could interview a professional in their career of choice. A couple of students who want to be photographers asked Malisa if they could interview me.
My sister is one of those teachers who loves involving stories of her family and friends into her teaching strategy. She had previously shared my profession with her students and they were vaguely aware of what I do.
I came to speak to the class in mid December of 2014 and explained all aspects of my job as a professional photographer. The whole class was amazed by my photos, and in response they asked me if I could take “cool” pictures of them! My general response was just to laugh it off and tell them, “you never know!”
At the time I didn’t really see a plausible way for me to actually take “cool” images of 30 students. By “cool” images, they were referring to my composite work which involves countless hours of planning, execution, and even more time in post production. It just wasn’t logical.
A couple of weeks later, on a long drive to a family dinner, my wife (who is also a teacher at the same school), my sister, and myself were having a conversation. We started discussing my visit to Malisa’s class a few weeks before. As we were talking, something inside my brain just clicked!
I Had an idea.
In 2013 I did a personal project titled “Not All Wear Capes” featuring first responders and law enforcement personnel in movie poster style composites. I had used that series to raise money for our local arts guild and it had been huge success.
“Why don’t we do something similar to NAWC” I asked? “We could dress your students in costumes as their future careers and make realistic composites of them. We can use the images to create a calendar and raise money for a charity or non-profit.”
They both agreed we might have a decent idea on our hands and the “When I Grow Up” project was born!
Finding a charity to raise money for ended up being much easier than I had anticipated. Malisa volunteers for a local non-profit called City of Refuge.
The City of Refuge’s mission is to provide “a hand up, not a hand out”. It is an outreach that aids indigent families in our community and exist to provide a support system to help them overcome the impoverished conditions in which they reside. My sister is the director of the youth program.
For a while they have been wanting to start a college and career fund for the youth. The fund will be used to help their youth with application fees, college visits, field trips, educational resources, etc. The hope is that eventually they will even be able to offer scholarships to deserving youth that are a part of the City of Refuge.
It was decided that the “When I Grow Up” project would be used to kick off this initiative!
From January to May of 2015, the three of us brainstormed on ideas. I knew we would have to work out the logistics and do some carful planning to actually pull this thing off.
The biggest obstacle was going to be the fact that I had to shoot all the students at the school with a very limited amount of time. I couldn’t take much time from their daily curriculum. Trying to coordinate multiple photoshoots outside of regular school hours just wasn’t an option.
Not to mention, I am a full-time commercial photographer with a very busy schedule involving client work.
I was able to free up 4 days the last week of school and proceeded to pull off all the shots I needed of the students. I shot them all on white backgrounds so I could easily clip them out later.
As an added bonus we were even able to get the principle and assistant principle to be in the series!
I made sure to keep notes on everything I would need to remember when it came time to shoot backgrounds and other elements for my composites.
I recorded camera height, focal length, distance from my “models”, and anything else I thought would be relevant.
I spent the summer traveling to places like Phoenix, Washington D.C., Florida, as well as seeking out local locations to capture all my composite components. My sister and I also spent the summer connecting with sponsors to raise money for the upfront printing and marketing cost.
We were able to pull of the entire project with a starting budget of ZERO dollars, which is pretty incredible! We had many costumes and props donated to us by some very awesome people and businesses.
There were some things I ended up having to buy, but the fact that this was a personal project that I was passionate about, made paying some money out of pocket when needed a pretty painless endeavor.
As the series started to reach completion it really came together. There is nothing like seeing a vision finally come to fruition! Seeing all the photos together made me realize we really had something we could be proud of!
On November 5th we released the series along with the calendars locally.
All the students are now 6th graders in middle school, but the majority of them showed up for the event. We surprised them all with a special table where they could sign autographs for everyone that bought the 18th month calendar!
They felt like super stars!
What makes this entire project so special to me is the fact that we were able to inspire these kids. This project was able to plant a seed in their minds that they have the potential to do anything they can imagine!
On top of that, they were part of a project that has the potential to change the life of other students in the community. Their participation in this project is the starting block of multiple opportunities for others.
This project is something they can be proud of when they remember the 5th grade.
Heck, it’s something they can be proud of forever!
To purchase the calendar please visit www.whenigrowupproject.net.
All the proceeds from calendar sales go directly to City of Refuge Youth.