Ordinary makes extraordinary
It was 7am on a typical Summer Thursday. My weekday routine of which I enjoy and don’t usually tire is mundane but I don’t say that with disdain. I have always thought of the repetitiveness as consistency which is generally a good thing. A consistent routine, consistent work has enabled me to make a living doing something I love, photography.
A normal day starts with a glass of water, a shower, my daily green supplement and if I am feeling extra hungry, a piece of toast with peanut butter or fresh fruit. Then it’s off to the city. About a 40 minute drive with no traffic. Greater Boston has been my home for 35 out of my almost 46 years. Photography has been a big part of those years as a hobby turned profession.
The profession started in the early 2000’s. I was working secularly for an engineering firm, sitting at a desk all day drafting and designing roads, bridges, water and sewer systems. Photography was a quiet fire burning inside that sparked in 1997 when, a few months after I was married, my wife’s grandparents invited us on a trip to France.
My grandfather-in-law was born in Paris and grew up during World War II after which he fled to the United States when he was 18. All these years later, he and his wife had been treating the grandchildren to trips overseas to see the homeland and relive some old memories. It was our turn.
I didn’t know much if anything about photography at that point, but I knew I had to document the experience. So I bought a nice leather journal and planned to write about my experiences as we traveled the country. I didn’t even own a camera. Sure enough though the grandparents had a cheap one to lend us.
A rickety old film camera of which I don’t even remember the brand. Pentax? Maybe. I thought, ok, why not. It could be fun I guess. So I loaded up on some 35mm film from the local supermarket in preparation for the journey. I traveled a lot as a kid but never to Europe. Excitement awaited.
Now, it would take too long to story tell the experience, but I remember the very first click of which I had no idea what happened or how it turned out until arriving home a few weeks later. There was something about looking through the viewfinder, framing the shot and anticipating what it looked like in a print.
That experience ignited a tiny flame that would keep burning for a while before it became a fire. Kind of like a pilot on a stove. A few years and a few film cameras later I started to brainstorm ideas of how to make some extra money through photography.
I had been developing my skills through reading books, experimenting and even listening to some early podcasts before they were mainstream. I started sharing some of my personal work with a positive response and even dabbled in the early days of micro stock. A modest monthly stipend boosted my confidence that I just might be able to make a living at photography.
I then heard of a freelance work site where people posted projects for hire. Not all photography related, but some. At the time, I was following some wedding photographers online, and it seemed like, “yeah, I could do that!” They, of course, made it look easy. On the site, I connected with a young couple looking for a wedding photographer. I was determined not to work for free even though I had never shot a wedding before. So I thought I would just put myself out there, be completely honest and offer my services.
I showed them some of my personal work and told them that I had never shot a wedding before, but I wanted to be a wedding photographer and offered $200. They took a chance on me. They were an attractive, fun couple that had planned a beautiful wedding on a beach in Newport, Rhode Island. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity. I knew this was my chance. I prepared well and worked at honing my craft.
That portfolio led to many more weddings and engagements in the years to come. My professional work evolved as my interest in different genres of photography developed. Other opportunities came my way to shoot food, products, interiors, family portraits, seniors etc. I honestly enjoyed it all but I knew if I wanted to reach a higher-end client and charge more for my work I needed to specialize.
Headshots had been the most recent thing that I added to my portfolio, and the demand seemed to be spiking dramatically. To take advantage, I created a separate website only featuring headshots. Without spending much on marketing, just hustle and effort, the work started pouring in. Without a studio, I was traveling all over great Boston, which began to wear me out. So the search began to find my first headshot studio.
Eleven years later, there I was in my daily routine, driving to the studio. It was during those eleven years that a perfect storm happened that led to creating the work I am most proud of to date. My studio work made it possible, and that’s why what could be considered mundane is anything but that.
From the late 90’s until now, travel, portraiture and volunteer work dominated my interests. So why not combine all three as part of an ongoing personal project. I always heard other creatives talk about the importance of personal work to feed the soul, so to speak. But I didn’t know just how meaningful that would be until 2015, when a trip to Africa set us on a 6 year path to spending two to three months a year working with local communities in Africa and Brazil.
Portuguese is a second language for me, so adapting to the cultures of Mozambique and Brazil were a natural fit. While working to help the local people in these communities, I was able to connect with them from a different perspective. It took some time to break down the walls of being viewed as an outsider tourist, but once they let you into their lives, the opportunity for meaningful portraits abounded.
One teenager from a small island off the coast of Mozambique named Alberto invited us to his home. He shared a story of the loss of his mother when he was young. He had only a few memories of her. With tears in his eyes, he showed us a creased and torn photograph that he had of her. It preserved his memory of her. What an example of the power of just one photograph. It was extremely uncommon for locals to have photographs of any kind.
So I started taking portraits of people wherever I went. Young and old. The goal was to make prints and bring them back to the island the following year which I did. As I went in search of the people I had met the previous year, I would give them a tangible print of them or their loved ones. The reactions were so appreciative, and some even met with tears. Of joy and sadness. These were special moments that I will never forget.
The lesson for me is that sometimes something that seems ordinary can make something extraordinary possible.
Darren Pellegrino is a headshot photographer located in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. His personal work includes culture, travel, landscape and street photography. He currently uses the Fujifilm X system.