It’s funny how they say within a few years, no, even one year, you can become an entirely new person. This was my life just a few years ago: I lived and breathed nothing but photography. This is no longer the person I am anymore.
This was the dream I gave up on chasing.
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When I was a teenager, I struggled with severe depression. I didn’t have many friends, and even with the ones I had, I struggled to find any common ground to build relationships with. Luckily, one of my art classmates introduced me to an online community called DeviantArt, and this website soon became my solace of safety away from my torrential emotions. With just a click of a button, I could sift through endless amounts of paintings, illustrations, prose, and photography.
Through DeviantArt I discovered the beautiful world of photography: unlike illustrations that took days and even weeks to finish, a photo could be captured in one instant and then briefly edited. Producing works of art was much less involved and required much less illustrative skill. Once I got my first camera, the obsession began.
I brought that thing everywhere with me – to school, to hangouts – even all around home I was photographing every single thing I could find. I shared my images on DeviantArt and honed my skills with the help of the supportive community.
During sophomore year I used my poor friends as guinea pigs for my pictures: they became my muses. As I became more comfortable photographing portraits, I eventually stepped into the world of freelance photography and started charging for pictures. I had legitimate contracts and created package bundles, came up with hourly rates and built up a steady client base. People came to me for engagement work, senior portraits, maternity portraits, pretty much everything. I made a good chunk of change while working part-time at the local movie theater and selling candy bars out of a shoe box at school.
Graduation got closer, and my parents began pressuring me to figure out a feasible career. As a 17-year-old I really didn’t know how to what to do, especially given my academic track record. With my eating disorder practically being my full-time job, school seemed so minuscule and unimportant on the grand scale of things. I didn’t study, I ditched so much that I was probably at school less than 40% of the time, and even when I was present, I was usually seeking refuge at the creative technology department where I devoted all my time to my photography.
I told my parents I believed I would be able to pursue photography as a career. I was already photographing weddings at such a young age and receiving referrals left and right, so I was making a pretty good income for someone my age.
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I honestly didn’t think I would graduate, but just by a sliver, I did. I was set on pursuing my career as a photographer, but to appease my parents I also applied at the local community college and took prerequisite classes. Again, I focused all of my concentration on my creative efforts, taking tons of electives to get my AS degree in Photography, because I knew that with my traditional Asian parents, having a degree meant you had some sort of official education or credentials.
I was constantly at the college photo studio and multimedia department, taking full advantage of my access to a studio and bringing a full cast and crew of models and makeup artists to the set. My creativity consumed me 24/7.
My photography teacher saw my efforts and recommended that I apply for a multimedia scholarship, so I submitted a portfolio of my best work. I created a DVD slip cover and passed it along, paying no more extra attention to it than I could spare because I was so busy building my clientele and portfolio. I figured that my chances of winning were slim since it was a statewide scholarship, so I submitted my entry and moved on.
I actually won, though, and this became the first of many collegiate successes.
For the prize I was given a cash grant and a graphics tablet, and was so proud that I invited my parents to the award ceremony. They were confused, and had no idea what it was that I had just accomplished. Thousands of students had entered, and I won.
I remember returning home that night, heart completely shattered and silently crying in my room because my parents didn’t seem as proud as I had expected for them to be. At that moment, I had realized that I had made the wrong career choice to them. My parents didn’t understand my decision to pursue an artistic profession. And the more I thought about it, all eyes were on me – my entire family and even friends were waiting on when I’d “wake up” and find a real job. I wanted to prove them wrong.
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I pulled away from friends and family and focused on building my success. A job offer was presented to me from the multimedia department as a tutor and instructor, and I was also invited to become a member of the exclusive Inland Empire Photographer and Videographer’s Association, with all of my membership fees paid for. At 19, I was the youngest member of the association.
The Press Enterprise reached out to me for several interviews, my work started to get published in magazines, and I even became pen pals with the state senator, as he periodically sent me letters recognizing my accomplishments. I was finally starting to earn some recognition.
Opportunities starting hitting me left and right. It seemed that the more doors started opening, I began to shut everybody in my life out. I was constantly fighting everyone – my boyfriend, my best friends, my family – and those who didn’t agree with my artistic lifestyle were immediately shunned and ignored. I was too busy focusing on fueling my success.
I broke into fashion photography, where I started working with modeling agencies such as Ford Models, Wilhelmina, and other well-known agencies to test with their models. I met one of my best friends Michelle Hébert at this time, where we began to push each other towards our goals of entrepreneurship.
Cosplay photography was another avenue I dove right into, and the networking connections I had made had landed me some amazing opportunities. I met Crystal Graziano through DeviantArt and Yaya Han through Twitter – by some stroke of luck these incredibly talented women were crazy enough to give me a chance to shoot them, and having their presence in my images created even more exposure for me.
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I’d broken up with my high school boyfriend of 6 years and started dating several shady characters who contributed nothing but emotional damage to my life. I ended so many relationships within a short course of 2 years and then decided I just wanted a whole entirely new life.
I was still broke and struggling to be financially independent, but I felt that it was time for a change of scenery to jump-start a new life, and Los Angeles and its creative industry were beckoning me. When a friend offered a room to rent at his house, I was so close to taking that offer – until my bulimia peaked.
This is still a hard topic to talk about, as I was never fully open about what was said and done between my doctor and I. I faced malnutrition and my digestive system could no longer break down meat nor fats. My heart grew weak and started to experience irregular heartbeats, which put me at the risk of having heart failure in my sleep.
I was strongly recommended to undergo an inpatient recovery program, but after making a few inquiries in secret, I knew my parents couldn’t afford it. Insurance barely covered the minimum, and we were looking at hundreds, thousands per month. My parents had just lost their home and I didn’t want to burden them with my issues. I chose not to go. I never told my parents any of these things. I never told my boyfriend either. It was too hard (and it still is, to this day).
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Knowing that I was facing a significantly higher chance of death than most, I chose to fight for my happiness and remained behind the lens. I invested in several self-help books and saw a therapist who offered welfare rates, so I was able to afford therapy and began empowering myself by learning more about my mental illness. I became more self-aware and underwent change. I forced myself to stomach my food, I forced myself into a strict diet, and I forced myself be kind to myself, because this was the only way I could survive. This was tough, because after over 8 years of throwing up my food, this response became autonomic to my body. All I knew how to do was punish myself. I no longer knew how to eat food and keep it down – it hurt to keep it down. I got severely sick, dizzy, broke out into cold sweats, experienced crazy mood swings and every other terrible symptom of nausea you could imagine.
Every. Meal. Every. Day.
For almost 2 years of recovery.
I spent a lot of time in isolation, even avoiding my parents at home and hiding behind my bedroom door.
Throughout this hard time, I noticed my work started growing darker and more evocative of the feelings I had kept inside. I felt almost as if I was so filled with negative emotions that I was starting to burst at the seams.
Eating was stressful, and every meal came with tears. I was fighting my demons because I wanted to stay alive and build an empire to leave my kids a badass legacy. There had to be more to my life than just suffering and sadness. And creating alternate realities and fairytale stories within my images was my way of living and escaping the shitty life I believed I had.
I didn’t have enough money to rent out the room my friend offered, so it was eventually taken by someone else. I moved back in with my parents and focused on healing my mind and body. My parents became so worried about my well-being that I made the decision to go back to school and become a licensed esthetician.
I promised myself that this new occupation was only for the meantime, to temporarily distract myself with something new and not slip back into depression. But after I became licensed, the fire and passion I had in my heart for photography slowly started to dim. I didn’t notice it at the time, but my breaking point forced me to trade the emotional crutch that was photography for a journey to heal myself.
Shortly after I moved in with my parents, I met Jun next door, and he witnessed me change from a depressed bulimic to the person I am now. He met me at my lowest and saw me become a person free and independent of anyone else’s dictation.
And this was the turning point where I had given photography up. After being so empty for so long, through my own self-reflection and therapy I learned how to make myself whole. And in doing so, I realized that my photography was a cop-out I used to distract myself from the emptiness I felt my entire life. My imagery was always a way to paint my sadness into colors and shapes, while in real life I did nothing to eliminate the pain I felt. I thought that with my photos I could pursue a life of happiness, but looking back, creating pictures that were inspired by my own self-inflicted suffering actually prevented me from growing as a person.
As I slowly fixed myself, I realized that less and less I needed photography like a drug because I was able to take control of my emotions, something I’d never been able to do.
There’s a saying that you are always one decision from a completely different life, and I believe that if I made the decision to move to Los Angeles, I’d probably have my foot in the door by now, shooting some big clients, doing big things. But then I never would have become the person that I am now, and to be honest, I really like the person I have grown to become. That’s a big statement coming from the person who didn’t understand the concept of self-love just a few years ago.
I still have a huge respect for photographers out there and don’t believe that everyone else has some sort of tormented past that fuels their work. However, I personally feel that I can look back and not regret a single step I’ve taken. I don’t feel that I’ve left photography completely behind – I knew there was a purpose in me learning this craft, and I feel complete now that I’m able to use all of the knowledge and skills I’ve acquired from this journey and apply it to my blogging. After taking a break from it for so long, I am able to pick up my camera not because I need it like a drug, but now, just simply because I love creating. My relationship with photography has turned into something healthy.
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During the first few months of my blog, asking my friends to use my camera and take pictures of me was awful – I’d always been behind the camera rather than in front of it, but through blogging and forcing myself out of my comfort zone, I have learned to see myself from other people’s perspectives, and it isn’t as bad as I always feared it would be. In fact, I actually like sitting down and editing images of myself now. There is no better feeling than to finish a picture of myself, knowing that I 100%, truly, from the bottom of my heart, love a picture of myself. I’m starting to see the beauty in me that I had never been able to for many years.
Although I’m young, I feel that this journey has given me a lot of insight to share with young adults trying to find themselves. Many people I know in their mid-to-late 20’s have picked up careers that they didn’t even study for in college. There’s an odd time between high school and college where people are trying to find themselves, and things may not always pan out the way your current self wants it to. Old me would have rather died than learning that present me so willingly let go of the career I fought so hard to acquire. But things change – you change, and sometimes that also involves letting go of something old to grab onto better opportunities and potentially brighter futures.
Some people may be sad or shocked that my decision came to this, but I feel that sometimes you have to move forward if you want to continue growing. In my case, I felt that I couldn’t move onto the next chapter of my life until I decided to close the one that continued to cause me pain. Besides, I don’t feel that my photography died – I feel that it lives on here, through this blog – through The Baller on a Budget.
View my portfolio: www.aileenluib.com
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