On this episode of What Makes You Click, Kelvin welcomes Douglas Sonders, an LA-based commercial photographer, filmmaker and producer, among other creative pursuits. Douglas shares his unique experience growing up with an entrepreneurial father, hustling his way into the photography industry as a college student, and the many people who have inspired his relationship with photography throughout his career.
Douglas shares how photography gave his shy, young self the confidence to go against his parents’ wishes for him to attend business school. He speaks on his photography side hustle he developed as a teenager, while noting why he decided to get a degree in advertising photography at RIT. He shares his candid thoughts on the benefits of going to photography school, touching on the most inspiring class he ever took, and whether you need to go to school to become a successful photographer.
Douglas talks about the challenges of becoming and staying an artist while exploring new areas of life, along with what has helped him stick with creating art and playing with innovation. He emphasizes the importance of self-sufficiency, daring partnerships, never stopping working towards your dreams, and never living life with regret.
Tune in to learn what’s next on Douglas Sonders’ ‘to achieve’ list!
Connect with Douglas Sonders:
Visit his website: www.sondersphotography.com
Follow him on Instagram: www.instagram.com/douglassonders
The reel of Douglas’s work that Kelvin references: https://www.sondersphotography.com/Behind-The-Scenes/Montage-About-My-Work/1
Connect with What Makes You Click:
Visit our website: www.whatmakesyouclick.com
Follow us on Instagram: www.instagram.com/whatmakesyouclickpodcast
Connect with us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/whatmakesyouclick
People + Resources Mentioned:
Annie Leibovitz: www.artnet.com/artists/annie-leibovitz
Mark Seliger: www.markseliger.com
Denis Defibaugh: www.denisdefibaughphotography.com
Chad Griffith: www.chadgriffith.com
Michael Turek: www.michaelturek.com
Steve Giralt: www.instagram.com/stevegiralt
Luke Pearsall: www.lukepearsall.com
Abstract: The Art of Design: www.netflix.com/title/80057883
Elliot O’Donovan: www.elliottodonovan.com
David Goggins: www.davidgoggins.com
Elon Musk’s biography: www.amazon.com/Elon-Musk-SpaceX-Fantastic-Future/dp/006230125X
A Promised Land by Barack Obama: https://obamabook.com/
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight: www.barnesandnoble.com/w/shoe-dog-phil-knight/1123427012
[00:00:00-00:01:37] – Episode Introduction
[00:01:57-00:04:52] – Guest Introduction
[00:04:52-00:07:00] – Douglas Sonders Before the Artist
[00:07:00 -00:09:00] – Getting Interested in Photography
[00:09:00-00:14:12] – Douglas Sonders Educational Background
[00:014:12-00:19:30] – Mentorship Influence and Self Sufficiency
[00:19:30-00:23:39] – Is education Necessary for Success in Photography
[00:23:40-00:30:34] – Success Skill Set or Drive?
[00:30:35-00:38:07] – Influential Photographer’s: It is About the Human Connection
[00:38:07-00:43:04] – Douglas Sonders Success Milestones | Never Wonder What If
[00:43:04-00:48:27] – What is Next for Douglas Sonders?
[00:48:27-00:49:37]- Show Outro | Information and Resources About the Show
What Makes You Click-Douglas Sonders
Kelvin Bulluck: Hello, and welcome to another episode of what makes you click I am your host Kelvin Bulluck. And before I introduce today's guest, I just want to give a special shout out and thanks to everyone who has showed mad love for the launch of this podcast. I appreciate all the well-wishes and the feedback that I have received.
I just ask that if you continue to enjoy this podcast, feel free to share it with other up and coming photographers, or those who you might feel would benefit from hearing these amazing stories from the guests that we feature. Just keep in mind that this podcast pairs very well with those long editing sessions, so just throwing that out there.
Today we have a special guest. This gentleman is an amazing commercial and celebrity photographer who is way more than just a photographer. He is a creative on so many different levels and that will become quite clear as you listen to this episode.
What I also love about this guest is his ability to, keep it real, but also keep it positive, at the same time. Not sugarcoating anything, calling things out for what they are, but also seeing the good in things and finding that balance, and you will hear a little bit more about that in the episode as well.
Without further ado, let us take a listen to hear what makes Mr. Douglas Sonders. Click!
[Intro Music Playing]
Douglas Sonders: Hello! All right! Thank you for the honor of, inviting me and allowing me to talk with you a little bit. Thank you for that. Appreciate it.
Kelvin Bulluck: No, thank you for taking the time. I understand you are a busy guy and so
Douglas Sonders: I am just trying to pay the bills; I like paying the bills.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is right. It seems you do just a little bit more than pay the bills, you are a creative genius on many aspects or many levels, kudos to you on that.
Let me go back and say that, I met you about five years ago, very briefly. I would not expect you to remember it, but it was in New York, Phase One was having an event at this beautiful studio space in Manhattan, and you were one of the presenters. This was like September 2015, and I remembered you walked in and it was, just real fly heads, your blazer, and jeans on. I am like, okay, I see this cat got some swagger in him. You came in and you gave your presentation, and the presentation was great.
Two things that stick with me to this day that you said and have worked wonders for me; it is silly when I think about it, but it was real. You were like, if you are ever on set, instead of bringing, a whole bunch of your battery packs for you or strobes, rent a generator from home Depot. I never even thought about that, that is crazy!
The other thing that you said was, make sure that when you are traveling to commit to one airline, one, hotel, and one rental car agency to rack up the points. Small stuff like that just did not occur to me at that time. I just wanted to give you a quick shout out for that info.
Douglas Sonders: Pre COVID? Were you a traveler? Was there a special stay as were traveling around as a doing work?
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah. I am based in the DC area, and I know you are familiar with the DC area being from there, but…….
Douglas Sonders: I will be there in two weeks.
Kelvin Bulluck: Cool. Cool! I am based here in this area, but pre COVID I was traveling, quite often to New York, once a quarter to LA, do some down Souths travel as well. I just tried to go where the business is, so that information that you gave me was……. Yeah. Yeah! You get it. I know, I think I saw on one of your, articles, I think you, I guess pre COVID you are traveling like a hundred thousand miles a year?
Douglas Sonders: At least. yeah. At least minimum, for sure. This year I am slow, but I think I am at about 50,000 miles so far, even during COVID times.
Douglas Before the Artist
Kelvin Bulluck: Wow! For me, I am big on really understanding the origins of a creative and, for somebody who has done all that you have done, it just makes me think, where did Douglas begin and how did he become who he is today?
I know that you are from the DMV, but how did your family end up in the DC area? Were they from that area as well?
Douglas Sonders: My parents met in the Virginia area, so my dad was from New York, so, they were there in Fairfax, before I was even born. DC was a good place to grow up I suppose. Northern Virginia went to high school Edmund Burke, in DC, right by DCU, I learned to drive in the city. DC is in my blood.
Kelvin Bulluck: Growing up what kind of work did your parents do? What did your mom, and you said your dad was from New York?
Douglas Sonders: My parents divorced when I was young. My dad passed, probably about five years ago.
Kelvin Bulluck: Sorry to hear that.
Douglas Sonders: He was an entrepreneur in the sense that he started his own business and succeeded well with it. It was in mortgage banking.
I grew up as little kid stuffing envelope in the mail room. I always had a job starting when I was eight years old. I appreciate that. I have no complaints that I did that. Odd jobs I did working at a Ritz camera on Moto photo and the Picture People, and anything I could do to, just keep a job, trying to be independent.
I was a shy kid. I was a late bloomer, and when I picked up my first camera, I picked it up in summer camp when I was a little kid and learned about the dark room and loved it, and then saved up for my first SLR, pre DSLR, a film camera, thirty years ago. Then I had confidence, when I had a camera, at a conference to talk to girls, I had confidence to make friends to go to parties.
Although, I do not know if you ever faced this, but, whenever I would go anywhere, I would be like, so, I am a photographer. It became my identity, because I was such a shy person, but I felt so empowered by the camera.
Getting Interested in Photography
When I told my family, that I wanted to go to school for photography, they all were like, sure, you should just go to George Mason. A local school get your business degree, or something safe, normal nine to five type of degree, and then you can take some art classes. I said, no, that is not going to work, I really got to do this right. To prove it……
Kelvin Bulluck: I am sorry, hold on for a second, because that's key right there. I do not want to brush over the fact that you were against what they said. It is so easy as a child to think, I need to please, my parents, I need to do what they tell me to do. You were like, no, I need to do this.
How did you even know I have to do this for me? What was it about photography that made it the thing for you?
Douglas Sonders: I knew I did not want to be in a cubicle for the rest of my life. I had spent enough time working in cubicles as a teenager, like a scene out of the movie Office Space.
I literally was in a space like that, working in the mail room for years, as a sixteen-year-old. I knew that was not me, and this was the nineties, the mid-nineties. It was the time where, that seemed like the, the rest of your life. Either you were, an office person in fluorescent lighting or you are out in the world free.
I knew I really wanted to be a photographer, so I started studying on my own and I would take photo classes in school, but that teacher would just let me do my own thing because I was so passionate about it.
I was reading photo books and referring to artists I really liked, Annie Liebowitz, Mark Soldier and, a lot of other legends of the nineties where, you are looking at those amazing artists and portrait people.
I knew, if they could do it, I can do it. I would not expect that I was that good, but somehow, eventually I could work up to that. I knew that if I were going to do a liberal arts degree where I would be doing a business minor…. a business major and an art minor, I was going to end up not doing it, photography.
Douglas Sonders Educational Background
Kelvin Bulluck: How did you, end up at, at Rochester? Did you have anybody that kind of put that bug in your ear or was that something that was on your radar already?
Douglas Sonders: I think my guidance counselor said that RIT was one of the best and it is the best a Brook. I do not think it exists anymore.
Brooks was also around, and I also applied to Savannah College of Art Design and Ringling. I got into every school I applied to, even though I was a mediocre student. I was so passionate as an artist that everyone, but rusty, I did not give my all on my application. I knew I did not want to draw, and they make you like draw and paint for you or application.
I got a couple of scholarship offerings and I really wanted to go to RIT. I went to visit, and it just was an amazing school and it really was an awesome experience to develop a foundation.
Kelvin Bulluck: I am curious, what kind of projects or portfolios were you submitting, even to RIT? Do you remember the type of images that you submitted to them?
Douglas Sonders: I think it was my super angsty black and white portrait stuff that I was Hannah printing in the dark room. It is a good question. I think I had some foundation drawing, I was an okay drawer, but I drew a lot of like comic book stuff Spider-Man and things like that. I was a 14-year-old, I do not know.
I think it was my dark room stuff, and I had randomly, I started making albums, print albums of what I was doing. I had my own little photography business, so, I was doing little family portraits and things around town.
I was doing small jobs, so I had a small portfolio of odd jobs. I did the interview, and, even though I was a B minus student, I was the super entrepreneurial, as a little guy. They let me in, and it was worthwhile. I loved it there!
The weirdest thing is, that I went to the school and I had technical know-how, but you ever look at other artists and are like, yeah, I am doing all right, but everybody is artistic, Avant Garde?
Spilling their own blood and making prints out of it. Doing Avant Garde things, and I knew am not this guy, but I really love photography, but I am not as cool as that. We would do critiques and my stuff would look clean, but I would always wish I were as good as this other guy or girl in my class that were doing these like wild swaggy stuff, and they are brilliant.
I even had, Dennis Defibaugh at RIT for my senior critique. He said that I would be good for running a family portrait studio. I do not think he meant that as an extreme compliment, and I did not take it as such, nor did I think of it as a personal attack, but it really bombed me out. I felt that I was going to do more with myself than that, and I was already shooting for music magazines by my senior year and stuff and off doing my own thing.
I respect the technical knowledge that I learned there at school, but a lot of where I went was because of just not following the rules of what I was told from a career and content standpoint. I just went by my own path.
Kelvin Bulluck: In that same vein, I know that you got your degree in advertising photography, which is specific. I do not think I have come across many resumes where it said that was the thing that they got their degree in.
How did that even become a decision or career choice for you?
Douglas Sonders: Good question. It was really focused on, you had three degrees that you can do if you are going to be a photographer. It would be, there would be fine art, which was like artsy stuff. Four by five, hand printing, which is great.
There is photojournalism, which I know some amazing photo-journalist style shooters, but a lot of that was, more about storytelling and natural light, some stroke stuff, but really it was more like editorial, PJ as we call it a PJ stuff, a then advertising photography was really in environmental portraits, or really controlled lighting playing with cool post techniques and composite work back when composites in Photoshop are like kind of fresh.
I am an older guy, so I have been in the game a long time, and that was like exceedingly early in the day. I knew that was for me and is what I really excelled at. I feel like in time was my Inbar portraits and controlled lights force. My stuff was like very sourcey looking, but that is just what I enjoyed. That is really what I had a good time, kind of fun time creating.
Kelvin Bulluck: I can totally relate to you when you say, you look at some of these other people, who are doing this artsy fartsy stuff and you are like…., but for whatever reason when I am shooting, that is just not what I do.
I can totally relate to that situation where you are like, okay, my stuff is clean, and you cannot help but create that type of look. I think over the past few years, I have been able to experiment a little bit more and try to tap into some other sides of myself.
I did not go to school for photography, a lot of it is self-taught and that, I picked up some mentors along the way.
Mentorship Influence and Self Sufficiency
Speaking of which, I know you talked about, your counselor in high school, when you talked about the professor that told you your work was like a family portrait studio. Did you have any actual mentors that were helping to edge you on, or was it your go getter attitude that helped you, start getting those jobs before you even graduated?
Douglas Sonders: I had Professor Doug Monchy who has since passed a few years ago. He was awesome, he was a cool encouraging guy, a real straight shooter, and I respected that a lot. Life was bad at home with my dad, he was bipolar, violent, bipolar person. I was not at school he wanted me home taking care of him. It was like more of a psychological thing, so I was home like chauffeuring, him cooking as meals.
He had full capability to take care of himself, but we evolved up with family members that have had friends that have struggled with mental illness. My father went from being a successful, powerful guy to falling into the depths of madness. The only way that I could justify him not having a meltdown that I was not home next taking care of him was working.
Oh, dad because he was such an entrepreneur younger. If I said I have a shoot, somebody paying me money, and it is going in a magazine, you would be like, that is so wonderful.
Psychologically, it was in his program. He could agree, so for me, I did not want to be a poor art student, having to move the home into my dad's basement, so, I can afford to be off on my own. I did not have a bunch of money waiting for me, I was doing like odd jobs, to move off my own and pay for camera and studio equipment. I started hustling. I had to hit up magazines to let me do a little freelance work. I was super aggressive. It was just pure survival.
I did not like the idea that I was going to be somebody's prep for two years, and then maybe, eventually I had to shoot. I knew I had a lot to learn, but I was good enough to create some stuff. In my confidence, I am not all like thought I was all great, but I know there is, some magazines are pretty crappy that would at least pay me some money to shoot some stuff back in the day.
It was mainly like, I just did not want to go home, and I wanted to be able to survive for myself, and so I started working hard. Everybody else was partying and school, and I was like cold calling music agents. I was looking at mastheads at magazines and just cold calling the sales department, and saying, I called the wrong number extension can you connect me with the editor and chief? They would say, Yes, sure. They will not leave the phone number or the email of the editor and chief, but in the magazine, they would just directly contact me, and the person would pick up and I would say, hi a photographer, I sent you my work. I did that to a bunch of like big magazines.
I eventually would work for Time magazine, but at the time, being a twenty-year-old student, they were not going to hire me for anything, but I shot for the stars. I hit up every car magazine, I hit up every photo magazine, People, in 2000, 2003. Just that, true desire to survive was what helped compel me forward. I knew I had stuff to learn, but I knew there was photographers that I really was inspired by.
My first big shoot was for celebrity car magazine and I was flown down to New Orleans to shoot this pretty popular rock band. I borrowed a bunch of camp gear from school and missed some of my midterms. I told my professors I would take them later, but they were all like, proud of me and saying wow, you are doing actual editorial.
They paid me real money. I went and shot this thing, and I did not have an assistant. I was breaking lights, so, I was doing…. but it was all right. I was so scared because I had never been off on my own, with camera gear and doing a magazine shoot. It was not like today where you can go on YouTube and they would say, this is what you do. YouTube did not exist. Facebook did not exist at that time, so, I had gone just pure balls, and go and do it.
Kelvin Bulluck: I love asking the question about the childhood and the growing up, because I am seeing a lot of recurring themes with you going out and doing what needs to be done. Whether that be from seeing your father and his entrepreneurial pursuits, him showing you what to do, or whether it is DNA, I do not know? You had that in you from an early age and you took it everywhere that you went.
I hear these stories from, the different photographers that I have interviewed, and they all have remarkably similar, ways of thinking when it comes to going out and getting the work. It is not going to come to you, you got to go to it, and you got to keep going at that wall until you bust through it. I think it is amazing to hear that, even from an early age, you were doing that.
Is Education Necessary for Success in Photography?
Kelvin Bulluck: With RIT, do you feel like they really gave you the tools and the resources to survive in the industry, or was it more about, connections you made while you were there, or you were able to work with equipment that you might not have otherwise.
What do you think were the benefits of going to RIT?
Douglas Sonders: I think if you were to ask me now, if I had to go to school to succeed, would you really have to go to photo school to succeed?
No, not now in 2020 and the apocalypse, the land we are living in right now. With digital cameras and photography and re-justification of looking in the back of your camera back to the day they just called chimping. You take a shot, and you look a little baby, one inch by one inch screen on the back to see if your, exposure was all right.
Then we stopped using light meters and nobody's light meters now, but back then, it was a different time. We had access to equipment that I otherwise would have been able to afford to use. I sold my car to pay for lights and for one of the first digital cameras in the market, it was 3,500 bucks for a 3.3-megapixel DSLR.
It ended up really working out well for me, because I was one of the first people to adopt digital photography and be able to like work with bands and work with universal records. I could turn around photos the same day, which was unheard of at the time. It was just for web and I help, create some of the first music fan sites that were actively updated by Universal Records because, I gave them that ability to get that content same day, versus rushing to a photo lab and then doing a drum scan and then trying to email them with barely dial up or whatever bad internet, at the time. I would not have been able to do that if I did not have access to the equipment to play with and figure out what I liked and what I was into.
Now, you can get, Chinese knockoff flashes on Amazon for two hundred bucks, that will be enough to get you started. You can get a DSLR with twenty megapixels for five hundred bucks now with a lens, it is wild. Back then, you had to beg, borrow, steal to get access to a DSLR, to medium format, to any anything.
Not only access to that, but some great professors. There was a great Platon who came in and gave us a portrait course. He stayed with us a couple of weeks and lectured a small group of us, and it was one of the most inspiring classes my entire life. To understand human emotion and reading to learn from him, the nature of reading, facial expressions, and body language and how to push people's buttons, it takes two years to master that…., but to think of ways that you want to research a subject before you photograph them and understand that about to yields, a reaction that you want for you or shoots, that was amazing experiences.
It would surprise you that majority of the people in one school, way more talented than me, as artists, 99% of them are not shooting anymore or creating art that they are not in the business.
I went to school with some amazing people that are still working, Chad Griffith, amazing entertainment, portrait photographer, Michael Turk, he is one of the shoots covers of Conde Nast Traveler, and he is like an amazing travel photographer. Steve Geralt is one of the most legendary robots. He is a photog photographer, but a technologist, so he pioneered using programmable robot arms to take slow motion, food, photography, and videos, and he is one of the best in the business.
There are people I am forgetting, but people I went to school with, I cannot think of anybody else that I went to school with. My buddy Luke, Peter Saul, he is a great travel guy, but I cannot think of maybe four or five people I went to school with that are still actively shooting or creating art. They moved on to other stuff. It is tough to be an artist, for a lot of people and to make a business out of it.
Success: Skill Set or Drive?
Kelvin Bulluck: You stuck with it. Can you, articulate why that is?
In my research of you, I do notice, a couple of different themes that kind of recur, and I know that you are big on, diversifying your skillset. I know you are big on going out and getting the things that you are seeking.
Are these the things that helped you stick with it or was there some other hidden drive that was there?
Douglas Sonders: I knew I did not want to, end up in artwork. I will say I have not had an employer, my entire adult life. I have not had one boss. I am turning forty here shortly, and not had one boss since I graduated school.
That is sometimes scary because I have people that I have to pay, my crew, and you worry about taking care of people other than yourself, of course your family. My crew is my family, and no one is looking out for me. I have a wonderful business partner. I have known thirty years and he is awesome. We look out for each other, but other than that, there is no, the boss is going to make sure your benefits are paid and all that.
Having come from a rough upbringing, I had to learn that nobody was going to look out for me. I had to look out for myself. I was like a little eight-year-old wandering, got kicked out of the house, wandering around my pajamas in the street. My dad decided to kick me out of the house when I was in the middle of saw asleep and he just decided to kick me out. I just woke up and he said, you are out, so I started walking around in my little jammys and outside. He decided to let me back in a little while later.
When you are like a little person reality sets in quick, you think, who has saved me? Nobody is going to save you. I do not want to go too dark, but you must learn that ultimately you have to find how to overcome an obstacle or not. You either overcome it, you fail, you die, not to be so stark, but that is the fact that life overcome. Yeah, man, that's real life.
Whenever I was a short kid, I get beat up and, I was like, I cried a lot in school. I do not blame them for beating up on me, I was all over the place. I was a mess of a kid. Stuff was rough at home, and you could be all the worlds against me, I am bad at sports. You can say all these things. I was telling a buddy of mine yesterday, my friends will call for advice sometimes, if I can help, that is great. This person said, I want to do this, I am not good at posting on social media. I say, if you want to be better, there is a million articles that you can look up and understand strategy. I will literally send you the articles if that is important to you develop your brand.
For us immensely proud to say I am an award-winning augmented reality software company where we are pioneering in the space. We are really changing things in the operating room, which I never thought I would say. I have been spending time in surgical center and kind of supervising, neurosurgery and then creating augmented reality software using HoloLens, as your platform, because it is the best, augmented reality that right now.
We are building stuff for, technology for surgical assistance and filling separate patents currently. I never thought that I would be in that space, and people are like, wow, that is random. You go meet up with people, like what do you do for a living? It is hard to say.
The point is, if something were logically interesting to me and important, and to my best friend, Nick, because he and I would not be where I am without him. He is like my brother. If something was like, I want to do this you do not go, one day, I will figure it out. Man, you just got to do it.
I learned code. I learned 3D modeling, and I am not saying I am coding everything literally myself because no app is made by herself, but I am able to understand the entire process, how the technology works, how to prototype things, literally all myself, how to manage the 3D assets and I project manage Jeeps, first augmented reality car configurator, cold sold that and events. I just walked up to the director Jeep brands at a press event, said they need to be doing that. I beat out to the largest immersive tech companies in the world, and our bid was quarter million dollars higher. They worked us down eventually, but that was pure balls.
We created the first prototype, working prototype, they had seen at the time and we won a silver for a Smarty Award, which is the mobile marketing association. It was the best app in the world silver, for 2018 and we debuted it at CES. That was literally off just like saying I am going around this future, and just decided to figure it out, take some courses online, and that never would have happened if I just had not decided I am just going to learn this and just do it. Same thing with everything with, photography with filmmaking. How do you ultimately…. sorry, I am going on a total tangent.
Kelvin Bulluck: No, this is good. You are touching on a lot of what I was saying. You are a creative, you are not a photographer, you are not a director, you are not an app developer. You are a creator.
You said this earlier, as a matter of fact, you said in high school, the camera kind of got you into places and that became your identity and I have even been, I have fallen victim to that mentality in the past of, I am the photographer, and that did give me the value.
It is like at a certain point I realized, I am more than just a photographer, do not call me when you need photos. There are things that we can be doing together in addition to that.
I have always been very curious about people and their backgrounds, so that is why I decided to start, this podcast. I felt I love photography and when I go to these different places and when I am in LA and I am in New York, I get a chance to really network with photographers (like yourself) who were doing major things in this industry. Every time I sit down and have a conversation with you guys, I learned something new about not just the industry, but myself, and it expands my horizons in so many ways. I thought it would be amazing if I could, capture these conversations and share them with other people who were, up and coming.
I feel like this is just going to be another contribution, on my way to figuring out exactly what it is that I am really supposed to be doing here on this earth with the limited time that I have.
Influential Photographer’s: It is About the Human Connection
I guess another question that I have is, I guess going back to the, you are in college, you are about to graduate. Was there a particular photographer, that you wanted to mimic their career path?
Douglas Sonders: I do not know about career path, I think because my background, I as a younger person had an inflated ego, not because I really believed I was that person, but because I was trying to prove my worth in the world. Whenever I say, I want to be like this, or I do this for that, I do not want ever to seem like, I think I am as good as this person, especially at that point early on in my career.
I would say Dale, his early composite work. He is does not even do composite work. Composite work is gone the way the Dodo these days, but I still love it. I am still working on a composite project right now. Something I shot with a buddy in the desert, not too long ago. I loved his stuff. It was so over the top, surreal mixing in all those composite elements, and then Annie Liebowitz is just a legend. I used to go into the bookstore, and they would have these thousand-dollar books that were a run of a hundred, but a hundred books only. It was super, their art pieces and the books themselves were three feet long, and you would open them up and there would be these giant beautiful portraits that she shot over the years. It was just, oh god, the emotion and the production design, everything was so fantastic.
I really loved those in Platon, what an amazing person. I wish my experience with him was more than a week or two. Netflix did a documentary on him; he has taken portraits of almost every world leader. He is one of the most prolific portrait photographers that maybe a lot of people do not know because he does not like being promoted himself. If you saw his work, you would know him.
Kelvin Bulluck: What is the name of the, the documentary, I would love to check it out.
Douglas Sonders: Abstract.
Kelvin Bulluck: I have got that in my actual que. I have not watched it yet, that is good, I am on the right path.
Douglas Sonders: I will send it to your chat. Platon, it was amazing because a lot of photographers here, in the world think, I am going to shoot this person looking superbad, or this lady looking sexy, or this guy looking sexy.
I really thrived and did well early on because I shot people that were not normally models. I did shoot a lot of musicians and celebrities, and that just helped me compel me to do other things that opened the doors for me. Some of my favorite work, were just like non models, “pretty people” but not like professional, visually appealing people, where that was their gig.
Then it was interesting when somebody was a blank slate, you could elicit emotion and reaction and truly work with them, not manipulate them, but just, feel them out. It was like a beautiful dance. It is like we have all had that feeling at a party and you meet somebody, a potential mate that is super exciting, and you do not know if they like you and you have this little dance and flirtation back and forth and you are like, am I going to get this person's number?
To me, it was like taking a good portrait, so, I would shoot, the secretary of department of labor, I know it is not like a super sexy title, but it was like a high-ranking political official. I remember an assistant of mine who is an amazing photographer himself, Elliot O’Donovan, he is in the DC area. He's an amazing shooter, good guy, but he said nice words to me after the shoot is to kind of marveled at the way, I worked the subject because I researched her, much you are doing with me, but I brought up stuff that was like low key in your history that I knew were subjects are important to her to elicit true emotion versus the normal, fold your arms and look at me and look nice and smile a little bit, but instead warming up the subject and yielding, some unique and beautiful result, I think was some of the most exciting things to me. I feel a little bit of a lost art. I do not know, what do you think?
Kelvin Bulluck: I totally agree. It is funny that you described it in the way that you just did. I had a corporate client on Friday who, I have been, in conversation with her and the team throughout maybe the past two months, trying to get a groundwork laid because she kept saying to me, I am very shy. I do not photograph well. I am like, these are the people that if you do not handle them, exactly right, they will look at all the images and want to throw them out.
I think, how can I like to lay a groundwork and do this dance in a way that is going to make her feel amazing until, I brought in an amazing wardrobe, styling team, amazing hair, and makeup team, and she had a beautiful space. I say, there is no way I kept telling her this. I am like, there is no way there these are not going to be the most amazing images because we have got an amazing team, got amazing space and you are gorgeous whether you realize it or not.
Throughout this whole shoot, she started to feel that magic. It started to feel we are vibing a little bit. It ends up, it ended up being amazing. I shared the proofs with her today and she was blown away, but you said, it is, a dance, and it is a bit of a lost art because people do want to just get in and get out.
She told me that the first experience, she had a few months back with doing some images for her brand and for your business, the photographer came in, threw her against the wall and just shot some, mediocre portraits of her, and she was just not impressed with the experience or the outcome. As you said, it is a lost art that people just think, I have got this amazing camera, all I got to do is turn the light on or put them in front of a window and take a picture, but it is a bit more to it than that, if you are trying to create something of value or even iconic.
Douglas Sonders: There are some beautiful staples when you look at photographers. You can go into these groups on Facebook and everybody is trying to post this picture of the sea individual and, or like this flashy car. Certainly, I enjoyed over the years shooting some flashy stuff, but you are going down into the true art of connecting with their subject……I will say, Platon, if you have a chance to watch his documentary and understanding what he does…. and that is why I was one of the first photographers at iTunes they brought me in because they have built to engage with the subject, but then five minutes and shoot exclusive album covers for them in that manner.
They would fly me in, I would shoot Lenny Kravitz for five minutes, and then that would be the end. It is a lot of pressure to be able to connect with the subject, know them, know, what they are like. I have a million stories and all the time of having to balance with an artist walking in having a bad day and then having never met them before and then having to break it down and work with them to get them to a comfort level that they were not going to run out of there, and that I was going to be able to take their portrait, let alone a good one.
Those are some of the most powerful things to me, sure you can take something that looks cool, robots, explosions, cars, burning and burnouts, but some of my best stories, I think in my mind were the ones that it was all about the human connection.
Douglas Sonders Success Milestones | Never Wonder What If
Kelvin Bulluck: You touched on the burning rubber, the flashy cars and all that. I must go back for a second and tell you that you and I are about the same age, I think you have probably got a year on me. I grew up watching a lot of the stuff that you did.
You have a reel on YouTube, and you are shooting all these amazing, old school, like A-team, Nightrider Robocop all these things, and then you are shooting from helicopters and SWAT teams coming out, and I am like my eight-year-old self right now is geeking out. The way you put all that together, I am like this man is living the life out here. He is out here living it up. I just wanted to point out that was dope what you did there.
Douglas Sonders: Thank you for saying so. That is my little bio video, I have my old photo site, and I have not updated in an awhile, but it was fun. It was mentally fun to put in that little bit here together because I had all these behind-the-scenes things. When I ran a blog, I had a lot of visitors to it because it was like pre you know, S stoppers days. There was not a lot of information when photographers want to know what people were shooting. When I would record stuff and then I put it in a little montage of like random shoots I did. It was amazing, and I am incredibly lucky in retrospect that I have had a lot of crazy over the top life experiences from being a creative and being an artist. I have been in the white house, worked with presidents, I have done photo shoots, overseas covers of magazines, more magazine covers than I can count.
After a while, and its Playboy mansion for having the Dukes that has the general lead doing donuts, and that, and one of the screens used cars and, I danced, with Mike Tyson. He and I had sung old town together, that was great. We talked about love and loss and, I have had some great times, but in the end, you think about, accomplishments you want some sort of trophy.
Trophies are great because it helps you book the next job, but ultimately in life satisfaction, did not yield much. There is no, credits at the end of the movie where you walk off and you, got the girl and you have won the million dollars and you live happily ever after. It is never like that in real life. Then you wake up the next day and it is what is next?
So ultimately for me, all those things are great. It is important to remember and appreciate those things that we have accomplished in memories and never stop, because ultimately you are trying to be that guy like Al Bundy in Married with Children, where he was always trying to relive that one touchdown he got, in senior high know, as a senior in high school. I do not want to be that guy. That is like trying to live based on that one touchdown I threw, twenty years ago.
Life changes, a lot of stuff I did as a photographer ten years ago, fifteen years ago, nobody cares, which is fine. It was a fun experience, it does not really matter, but I am thankful I have that memory.
I think if I were to bestow one life philosophy that I hope means something to somebody is never wonder what if I buried most of my family and a lot of friends. Unfortunately, I have seen how short life can be, and I think, especially when you bury a parent where you witnessed them waste their life, or any person that you care about, quote, unquote, waste their life. Meaning, not read the books they want to read.
My uncle passed away and I remember had to clear out his apartment and I found his bucket list. And he was a brilliant guy, he was an army guy, and he inherited a little bit of money from grandma and he lived very modestly, and he had some money saved when he died. He was literally a genius, and he had his health and all this and his bucket list was the saddest thing I have ever seen. I will not recount it, but I will tell you, he lived in a way, it made me sad that he and I were not closer, but he just squandered his life. Same as my father, all these opportunities where he could have gone on that trip, that he was on his bucket list.
He financially, could do it, but he was always just afraid of this or that, and it made me sad to know….and I am sure you probably have similar people in your life that you have seen them, life took them too soon and they would never went for that job, they wanted to go for it, took that one trip or learn to fly a kite or ride a bike or whatever that thing is. I think that is one of the biggest tragedies in life is those regrets.
What is Next for Douglas Sonder
Kelvin Bulluck: I liked that. One last question for you before I let you go, what you just said was spot on. I love that. It is such a simple thing to say, do not wonder what if, or do not leave that on the table. You do not want to ask that question, but a lot of people, we get so caught up in the day to day and we get so caught up in the, what if it goes wrong? Like they are asking the wrong question instead of saying, what if it goes right.
My question for you now is, so what is next for you, what is, what are some of the things that you want to, achieve? I know you are doing, more producing, more directing you are in operating rooms, like helping save lives. What is next for Douglas Sonders?
Douglas Sonders: I like to read a lot and I think one of my favorite things to read is, biographies. I used to read self-help books, which we all can benefit to a certain degree, but after you read enough self-help books, they will start sounding the same. You read David Goggins and it hurts my back, just reading his stuff. You read Elon Musk's biography now he is his own on his own planet, but he is running three companies and changing the world, because he is decided to do so. He would sleep on the floor of his office, eating Arby’s with his brother and learned to code and do whatever he had to do.
I have Obama's book on hold, it is coming out tomorrow and I am super pumped. I love reading stories of people that just figured out how to make it work and, Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the guy who created Nike, also great book.
I am in this weird scenario, I am lucky that I have too many opportunities and forgive, I do not know how else to say it, but we are busy with my production company. My air company, we are putting out we are funding yourselves with that campaign. I have several your ad campaigns coming out through, For Brands, and we are using that to bond your intellectual property and patent filings. I am the CTO of that company.
Individually, I also have a couple of development deals with national geographic television, where they have approached me to potentially show run a couple, one or two shows. We will see what happens. They are a client of yours for a long time, but never on that side of things. That is obviously like a dream come true to run my own series, not me in it, a baby, to make happen, to bring to life.
The truth is, I do not know what is next. I am I go full throttle. We have had a kind of a wild year. I do not know if you guys saw Bourette floats giant naked bourette floating in New York city and Toronto. If you Google social media giant, Bourette float.
Two weeks ago, we produced two ads and two countries in three cities at the same day. I was producing, four DPS, thirty cast members, a helicopter, three boats, two drones, steady cam, in literally three different cities while I was on set. I was just managing all of them at once. That is wild. Where do you go from there?
It is just managing my time if I had a family. I am not saying that sadly, do not know if I would have time to do it. For my friends that have families that they love very much, and they like to be at home at night with their kids and significant other and their partner, do not beat yourself up that you are not doing all the wacky stuff I am doing.
I made a choice where I almost got married, when I was a young guy, but in the end, If I got settled down early on, I probably would not have the time to be the crazy person doing all the stuff I am doing right now. I do not say that as a discredit to falling in love and having a family, ultimately you must juggle the choices in your life. You cannot have it all and that is just how it is.
I am sure one day I will settle down and that is cool, but I am thankful to be doing things with my best friends, making stuff happen, hanging out of helicopters, doing burnouts, and doing all the weird stuff that we have been doing, just super thankful. Trying to be a better person.
Kelvin Bulluck: I think that is the perfect place to wrap it up. I feel you have given your listeners a lot of great information and, I like the fact that you do not paint a glitzy glammy picture, you paint a real picture. I think that's exactly what people need, especially currently, so thank you for that.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and your time, and I wish you continued success. I am going to be keeping an eye out for you. If you are bored in the DC area, when this whole thing is cleared out and you want to catch it and grab a drink, man, I am here for you.
Douglas Sonders: Road tripping my truck. I am throwing my dog in and road trip into DC next week. For the month, all December just kind of lay low. For sure, I will know.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is what is up!
Show Outro | Information and Resources About the Show
All right! That was the show. What did I tell you? Douglas Sonders is on a whole other level of creativity and we can all learn something from his story, from his drive, from his willingness to do what it takes.
If you enjoyed this show, please take the time to rate it and to subscribe if you have not already and dropped a comment in your Instagram feed and let us know what you thought share some of the takeaways that you got from this episode with Douglas Sonders, and as always check out the show notes.
We have got a lot of great links to what he mentioned in this episode, so, take some time to, to check that out, again, this is all beneficial. These are resources that you can really use to, increase your awareness of things and to also just be inspired. Check it out and as always, I appreciate you for taking the time to listen.
We will catch you on the next episode!
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