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Meet Thevi Cao

Today we’d like to introduce you to Thevi Cao.

Can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
My fascination with photography started when I was in middle school. At the time, I loved skateboarding but I was not the best at it so I was trying to figure out how I can still be involved in it without breaking my tailbone. I would spend hours on end looking through Thrasher and Transworld  magazines wondering how the photographers were able to take these amazing pictures. I was eager to buy a camera but sports began to consume my life and I had to put photography on the back burner.

The year was 2013 and my senior year of high school was coming to an end. My mom asked me if I would like a letterman jacket as my graduation gift and I declined her offer and asked her if she can help me buy a camera. This is when my photography journey started.

Back in 2015, I was attending a local community college and as most students commonly are, I was miserable. I was going to school to become a physical therapist, but the amount of schooling needed to get my degree gave me extreme anxiety. I quickly realized this was not in the interest of my own happiness, and was only pursuing this to make my parents happy. So I spent some time researching yearly incomes of photographers and realized that I can make a decent income. It took me a few months to build up the courage to tell my family that I wanted to pursue photography full time. After a back and forth battle, we came to an agreement that I would go to school part time and do photography on the side.

At the time,  I was going to school part time and working two jobs as a photographer’s  assistant and a cashier at a retail store. I was doing anything I could to get photography experience and if it meant working fifteen plus hour days I would do it. The holiday season just passed and working in retail had completely crushed my spirit. Out of spite, I began looking for a photography job and landed an interview to be a product photographer at Fashionphile.

The term “fake it until you make it” is quite cliché yet I think it contains an important underlying message. Your work ethic and willingness to learn will determine how far you go in your career. My resume wasn’t blowing anyone away but the person who was interviewing me saw the drive I had. I did not get hired for the initial job position but he found a place for me. When I first started I had no idea how to set up lights or even how to fully work a camera. Everyday I would go home and watch youtube videos to learn the basics of photography which helped tremendously. I had great mentors around to help me, which was also a plus. As the days at work passed, I understood that I did not need to attend college in order to master photography.

Today I am a full time senior photographer at Fashionphile and also do side projects in my free time. I have grown tremendously in the past three years but my journey in this career has just begun. Needless to say, I see a bright future in photography ahead.

Has it been a smooth road? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Jimmy Yang is a comedian/actor who wrote a book called ‘How to American’ in which he wrote “…But I figured it was better to disappoint my parents for a few years than to disappoint myself for the rest of my life.I had to disappoint them in order to pursue what I loved.”

It is embedded in Asian culture that you go to college and get a degree and there is no signs of that changing. School was never easy for me and I barely graduated High School. When I started going to college, my disdain for school deepened. I felt like I was wasting my time and money going to school when I could use that time to learn about photography. After failing another semester I knew I wanted to quit. I remember the exact day I told my parents I did not want to continue my schooling; and to put it lightly, they were not happy. Both of my sisters have graduated at this point and all my parents wanted was for me to get my degree. It wasn’t that my family didn’t believe I could do it, but they just didn’t want to see me fail, which I understood. However, I had made my decision and I was going to pursue my passion with or without their support. Of course I would much rather have my family behind me through my venture but that was something I knew would come in due time.

2017 was the toughest year for me due to my mother losing her battle with cancer which left me with the guilt of her not seeing me achieve my ultimate goal. The passing of my mother made me realize how unexpected life can be and I needed to do what made me happy no matter what it took. The guilt I live with is the motivation to be a better person than I was yesterday. Not a day goes by where I don’t think of her; some days are hard to get through, but the notion of her disappointment if I were to quit, is something that keeps me going. No matter what life throws at me I take it on the chin because nothing will be worse than the day I lost her.

My whole life people have told me I couldn’t achieve certain goals. I wasn’t the tallest, fastest, or the biggest; so those people, just like my parents, didn’t want to see me fail. If I do fail so be it, but let me first make an attempt at it so I can at least say I tried. I was told I was too small to play high school football yet I started for my freshman team. They said I couldn’t play varsity football yet I was a two year starter. They said I couldn’t make a career in photography and here I am, a full time photographer. At the time, I was upset that people were creating these barriers for me but I thrive when faced with opposition. I work to be successful in order to not disappoint those who have supported me. Many people are trying to be successful out of resentment and to me, that is a waste of time.

You should never quit just because plan A, B, or even C didn’t go as planned. Evaluate what you did well and what you did wrong and start on the next plan. People will tell you no a lot but don’t let that deflate your confidence. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to quit, but my drive outweighed the doubt and I continued to pursue my goal. My career path wasn’t the easiest, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Tell us about your business/company. What do you do, what do you specialize in, what are you known for, etc. What are you most proud of as a company? What sets you apart from others?
My full time job is product photography at Fashionphile which is one of the biggest resellers of luxury goods in the country. This job is beneficial for me because it allows me to learn different shooting techniques due to the uniqueness of every item. This job helps me learn the production side of photography which helps me in my creative projects outside of work.

My main focus today is creating relationships with music artists and to help their visions come to life. I have fallen in love with music photography because it combines my two favorite interests. In my opinion, taking pictures of live shows is the ultimate form of photography because it captures such a raw emotion compared to other fields. I am hoping to shoot more shows next year and possibly do it full time.

I feel what sets me apart from other photographers is that I try not to follow trends and avoid taking photos for the sole purpose of getting the most “likes”. Now a days, the instagram algorithm is so complicated that you have to play their game in order to reach a bigger audience. For example, knowing when the peak time to post, using their live stream, hash-tagging, etc. I understand their method behind it because it forces people to use its app in its entirety, but to me it takes away from the original focus of the app; photography. My pictures are not about me, they are about the subject matter and telling their story.

My biggest accomplishment to date was seeing my picture I took of my friend for his EP on Spotify and Apple music.This was the first time an artist reached out to me and allowed me to help them through their creative process. It makes me so happy to be part of a project and seeing it on such big media platforms. Shoutout to Finn Mcgrath.

Do you feel like our city is a good place for businesses like yours? If someone was just starting out, would you recommend them starting out here? If not, what can our city do to improve?
San Diego is the perfect place for photography.  I personally know many talented photographers who have shot for big companies that are located throughout the city. The one downside I see is that opportunities are slim and there are thousands of people wanting that same job, but it teaches you how to be competitive. Many people get discouraged by this so they feel the need to move to a bigger city. In my opinion, if you have the talent you can make it anywhere. Reaching success and to say you did it out of your hometown is something special and I take pride that I am from such a great city.

My advice for someone who is just starting out is that life is a marathon and it is important to be patient and enjoy every single step of the process. The progress you make is determined on how eager you are to learn. It is extremely intimidating trying to learn how to use a camera at first so learning the basics (shutter speed, white balance, and ISO) is the best start. Also, take advantage of all of the youtube tutorials about photography. I have learned the majority of my photography by watching countless hours of video tutorials. Another tip is to go out and shoot as much as you can. Take photos of whoever and whatever and you will find what you like, then you can put your focus on that subject matter. Which brings me to my last piece of advice, do not rush in finding your “style”. Many big photographers on instagram have a cohesive style and subject matter which gives beginners the idea that they have to quickly find their style. Explore as many different avenues as you can and you will find what you like to shoot naturally.

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Image Credit:
Henry Young

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