Is he crazy? “Maybe,” laughs the 32-year-old, “but there’s still jobs out there to be had if you’ve got the skills, some luck and are willing to put in the hours for the hustle.”
Now hardly seems like a good time to become a professional photographer. Everybody’s a photographer, they say—iPhones and inexpensive-but-high-quality digital SLR cameras have made it that way. Over the past decade, staff photographers at media outlets have been laid off left and right, and veteran editorial, wedding, portrait and commercial photographers have seen their livelihoods undermined by a legion of semi-pro shutterbugs all too willing to provide images for a fraction of their fees or even just the thrill of publication and a photo credit.
And yet earlier this year, after years of nibbling at the edges of a photography career, Albert Yee took the plunge into full-time photo work. Is he crazy? “Maybe,” laughs the 32-year-old, “but there’s still jobs out there to be had if you’ve got the skills, some luck and are willing to put in the hours for the hustle.”
Everybody is a photographer, Yee allows, but talent still counts for a lot. “Any schmuck can get any camera they want,” he says, “and the learning curve is much quicker with digital, but you still have to be able to do it on the job consistently in a pressure situation, put it all together in the clutch moment, which not everyone can do. There’s still people out there who understand that and value that and will pay you for that.”
Yee’s got a solid client base to prove it: He shoots regularly for Grid magazine, for Reading Terminal Market, for Prudential Fox & Roach realtors and a host of companies big and small around the region. Portraits, executive headshots, editorial, events, food photography, concert photography, architecture and interiors—he does it all to make a living. “It’s cool if you’re real good at one thing and you specialize at it, but if you’re a portrait artist and a client goes, ‘Hey, I need a product shot,’ and you don’t know how to do it, then you’re screwed and you just lost $1,000 or something.”
Known in his neighborhood as “the kid with the camera” growing up just north of New York City, Yee started considering a career in photography, specifically photojournalism, in the early ’00s after covering a mayhem-filled World Trade Organization protest in Washington, D.C. (while he was attending American University and majoring in new media studies). On the front lines of the demonstration, watching activists clash with cops—“It was pretty crazy, but kind of a charge”—he came away with some powerful images and began photographing other political- and social justice-themed events.
After graduating, though, Yee says his parents, both Korean immigrants, dissuaded him from photography in lieu of a more traditional, stable job. “You know, they want you to be a doctor or a lawyer,” he smiles.
Yee and his then-girlfriend Katie (now wife) moved to Philly in 2004, and he briefly worked in a sales position at Philadelphia Weekly, followed by a marketing stint at Philly Car Share, database work for SEPTA, and a job at local-food-evangelists Fair Food’s Reading Terminal Market stand. All the while, he wandered the city’s streets snapping photos; he shot weddings and other events for friends; and he networked his way into the occasional pro shoot, which multiplied through word of mouth and people noticing his impressive Flickr stream.
Finally, he saw an opportunity to make that side gig his main gig and he took the leap—with the blessing of his parents. “They’ve seen how I progressed and they know I can make it work,” he says. “Over the past six months, I was having to reschedule shoots because of my regular jobs and it just got too annoying. At this point, I have enough clients who call regularly, which is definitely nice and there’s definitely some luck involved, being in the right place at the right time, but I’ve also worked really, really hard to make this my reality.”
As a “generalist” photographer, Yee says the job is never boring. One day he might shoot a developer’s new condo building in Northern Liberties. Another day he could be photographing Bhutanese refugees working a garden in South Philly, or foodie events at the Market, or harried CEOs with only a few minutes to spare for a head shot before running to a shareholders’ meeting.
Yee still manages to find time for personal projects like his ongoing “Hands That Feed Us” series— compelling images from the dozens of Delaware Valley farms, dairies and markets he regularly visits, reflecting his passion for and advocacy of sustainable foods and the farm-to-table movement.
“I love that all of that’s going on around here, and that there’s also opportunities here to make a living at [photography] if you try hard enough,” he says. “It might not always seem like it, but Philly’s a great city for working photographers.”
Workin’ It is written by staff writer Michael Alan Goldberg, who peeks into the lives of working professionals each week.