We had the good fortune of connecting with David Christopher Lee and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi David, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
I started my first online magazine in 2001 and built it up with content. I had innovative fashion editorials, photoshoots with celebrities and insightful reviews of San Francisco’s hottest restaurants. I knew that I was still in the building stage and I wanted more than just San Francisco. I always had the travel bug because I loved experiencing cultures, exploring cities, trying new food, but previously, there was always something controlled about my travel experiences.
My travels through college had either been with my parents, where I didn’t pay for anything, or with my friends for a just a week at a time. I knew there was more to traveling and discovering what a city has to offer, but I also knew that traveling was expensive, especially if you aren’t making any money. In 2006, my friend Shawn Pereira was in Miami and he asked me to come out and visit him. I told him, “sure, but how long should I stay for?”
He told me to buy a one way ticket and at first I was a little hesitant to come. I asked him where I would stay and how I would make money. He told me to book a one way ticket and don’t worry about anything and that everything would just come into place. I was really good friends with Shawn and I trusted him. He was a very experienced model and had incredible energy. One of the reasons why I was attracted to him was that he had this vibrant energy to him and we had done photoshoots in the past. My gut told me that it would be a good idea to go to Miami because I didn’t have anything to do in LA.
I was 24 years old, was producing fashion shows in LA but I felt I needed a change of pace. I went with my gut and I booked my one way ticket to Miami. It was a little scary but this was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and it really changed my life forever. After I arrived in Miami, I met Shawn on 3rd and Collins, which was the hottest neighborhood in South Beach. Shawn opened the door, gave me a big hug and welcomed me with open arms. BE OPEN TO NEW IDEAS “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” ― Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
I was open to the idea of going away without any expectations. My head was clear because I didn’t have any attachments or baggage. I had my doubts about going somewhere else for so long, because I had built up so many projects in Los Angeles. If I left Los Angeles, would the world I created still be there? Or would I have to start over from scratch. Some of my friends discouraged me from going to Miami because I didn’t know what I was going to do but my answer to them, was that I would figure it out when I got there. I didn’t let any negative thoughts get to me and I knew it was up to me to visualize and design my ideal life. I was all about appreciating, celebrating and living in the moment. I invited the universe to bring me abundance, energy and life.
Shawn told me that this was my apartment and that I could stay as long as I wanted. My mind was blown! Not only was this apartment 2 bedrooms with high ceilings, it had incredible natural light that permeated throughout the rooms. The furniture was minimalist, contemporary and served as the perfect backdrop for a fashion photoshoot. On top of that, the apartment was on the beach, next to the hottest club in town. It looked like it was going to be a fun time.
Shawn said that I could stay there as long as I wanted, but there was a catch…. He said that the apartment was owned by a model agency and that every day, 3 to 4 models would come to the apartment. I had to take pictures of them and they would give me $100 each. I said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” He said “no.” After all of my cold calling and asking for things, this was the first time, I heard the word, “no” but I was so happy to hear it.
The girls in Miami are absolutely stunning. They were primarily latin, mixed and some were blondes. Most of them had Elle Macpherson bodies and stunning exotic looks. The next morning, the first girl game to the apartment and I started shooting her. She brought a suitcase filled with bikinis and dresses. Her name was Angelie and she was from Aruba. She had huge green eyes and gorgeous tan skin. Her hair was straight and her body was to die for. Shawn was there too and he helped me with concepts and posing the girls. Shawn had been modeling for about 20 years so he had a lot of experience in front of and behind the camera. He worked with me as my creative director for the shoots. Prior to my Miami experience, I had limited experience doing photoshoots with models…but that was all about to change. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, NEVER STOP LEARNING “I play to win, whether during practice or a real game. And I will not let anything get in the way of me and my competitive enthusiasm to win.” – Michael Jordan
My experience in Miami was definitely atypical for a photographer. However, it happened to me so I can’t say that it won’t happen to you. Previously, I had done about 50 shoots total. When I was in Miami, I was shooting 3 to 4 models a day, for 4 months straight. By shooting continuously, and also with virtually no preparation, it really taught me how to think on my feet. I analyzed the situation – model, location, clothing, hair/makeup – and determined how I was going to shoot the model.
By shooting hundreds of girls and guys, in a short amount of time, it taught me so much about lighting, working with different skin tones and how to direct models. I shot so many different combinations of models – 2 girls, 2 guys, a girl and guy, 2 girls and a guy, 2 guys and a girl etc, with many different types of clothes. The more you practice and the more frequently do it, the better you get. By shooting a lot of speedos and bikinis, you learn a lot about posing the human body.
As a photographer, your ability to shoot never gets worse, you only improve because each shoot you learn something because everything is a new experience.. Even when I was shooting twins, I realized that each of them were different. Even though they looked the same, there were certain nuances about their faces that were different. Also, they had different personalities so you need to work with each of them differently.
Annie Leibovitz says that “There’s this idea that in portraiture that it is the photographer’s job to set the subject at ease. I don’t believe that.” That’s definitely true if you are Annie Leibovitz, not all of us are on that level. For Annie Leibovitz, its the job of the subject to be comfortable for her! When working with people on my set, its all about establishing trust and creating the right energy onset. This was my job, the job of the photographer.
Whether or not the environment is on location, or in studio, it needs to be inspiring, creative and feel safe. After doing all of my shoots, I’ve found that it helps to talk to your subject while they are getting ready for hair and makeup. You can ask them how their day is. If they are a celebrity, its good to do research on them to see what projects they are working on. They will really appreciate that. The more you shoot, the more you learn. As a photographer, you will find that its possible for anything to go wrong, however, there is a solution to every problem and you will learn that through time and by practicing. You are dealing with environments that have so many moving parts and so much creative energy. Creative energy can lead to chaos so its your job to control it. You do this by having a good team and by giving them guidance on the overall vision. When dealing with a client, its all about managing expectations. A good rule of thumb is to under promise and over deliver; then you won’t leave with any feelings of remorse and your client will be happy. EXPLORE YOUR CREATIVITY AND SEEK INSPIRATION “Do one thing every day that scares you.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
Shawn had a bunch of tear sheets from Italian Vogue and French Vogue which we used for inspiration for the shoots. We had these stunning models to work with, an incredible location and models to shoot whenever and wherever. I built up my book with some of the best poses and it was really my time to let my creativity thrive. Most of the shots were girls in bikinis. We would get creative and use fabric to cover different parts of the body. I shot a whole series of stunning beach bodies, piercing eyes and flowing fabric. It was quite a project.
We would go to the News Cafe everyday for breakfast. The News Cafe is a very popular cafe that has all types of fashion magazines from around the world. In 2006, there was limited information on the internet as compared today so we would go to the cafe to get inspired for our shoots. You always need to have an edge on your competition so you need to know what is going on around the world. Today, you can find obscure artists on Instagram and follow them. While you may think that everything is online, you’d be surprised because there is a lot of information that is hard to find. LIVING THE DREAM “What is not started today is never finished tomorrow.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I was really living the dream, shooting girls, learning all about light and posing and getting practice beyond you could believe. I stayed in Miami for 4 months, until the season ended in May and by then, my portfolio was looking better than ever. For those of you that don’t know South Beach, the town revolves around models during model season (runs from January to April). I became known as the Asian guy that hangs out with models. Club and restaurant owners would invite me over and comp everything that I ordered. They knew wherever I went, models would follow. Another thing about Miami culture is that there is a huge pressure to be fit. Every morning, Shawn and I would workout with the models: running on the beach, swimming in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and lifting weights. Shawn became our inhouse personal trainer and we all got into incredible shape. I even had a six pack. Shawn took his fitness to the next level. He barely ate anything and would work out all the time. He had so much energy and got an extremely low body fat percentage. All of his muscles were showing because he barely had any fat. I thought he was anorexic but it turns out that the body doesn’t need that much food to survive. I write more about this in my chapter about fasting which you will read shortly. After our workouts, we would do photoshoots with the girls and take all types of pictures. One of the girls asked us if we could do a nude shoot like the famous Herb Ritts photo from the 90s, the one with Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Paulina Poriskova, Christy Turlington and Tatjana Patitz. Of course I said yes. So, we had four girls to work with and posed them outside by the pool and shot an alluring black and white photo, my first nude. My Miami experience was such a dream, a living fantasy. I became a local celebrity, just because I was hanging out with models at all the hot spots. After the shoots, we would take the girls out to dinner and talk about the shoot. We would brainstorm ideas of what else we could do creatively. I had so many ideas and everybody that I was around was doing their best to make it all happen. My pictures were published in Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, In Style, and Ocean Drive. I never wanted to go back home! The crew had very high vibrations all around and any time we walked into a room, all eyes were on us. We had so much fun, seized every opportunity and were living our best lives. Having lived in Miami, which felt like another country because everyone spoke Spanish, opened my eyes because I realized that I was not bound to living in LA. I could travel anywhere in the world, take pictures, make money and live like a local. Miami was the first city I had stayed in for so long and was definitely not the last. I became an citizen of the world and I knew that I could fit in anywhere. It’s so important that you are able to get living experiences in other cities, not just the place where you are from. The reason why its so important is because you need to see the way other places in the world work. This will give you an edge up over the competition. In high school, I was definitely not social. I was the awkward skinny kid. I didn’t have much to talk about and all I did with my life was study, play sports and play the piano. With this newfound camaraderie and high vibrational energy, I was so inspired to create, to connect with people and build something together. For the first time, I was popular…because I was living in a world which I created and envisioned. Strong communication and social skills can open up so many opportunities. Part of my job was going out to parties, mixing, mingling and getting to know people. I would tell them why I was in Miami and what I was trying to do. Most of the people I met thought I was fun and wanted to be a part of my world. That is how I made things happen. HOW TO DEAL WITH REJECTION “I don’t want anyone who doesn’t want me.” ― Oprah Winfrey
If you are the one designing your life, you need be a visionary. You need to have a strong vision of who you are, what you do and why you are doing it. Along the journey to success, you will encounter many obstacles along the way. First, you must set a goal. After I arrived to Miami, I knew what my purpose was: it was to build up my portfolio, experiment with different photography techniques and to get to know the locals in Miami. While I had an agenda, it was not for everyone. Some people may have thought that I was not serious in my craft due to my age and lack of experience. Some people may have thought that I was just there to party because I was hanging out with beautiful women all the time. While I had an incredible time doing all of this, I was still doing business and I would ask for a lot of things….and trust me, I pushed things to the limit. I would ask for clothing, yachts, planes, jewelry and transportation for my photoshoots. In the creative process, we need to work with the resources that we have. I had a grand vision to create the best pictures that I could take.
Most of the time, there was no budget for any of these things. I wasn’t content with shooting the same pictures over and over and that’s why I wanted these things. Since I had the models, I wanted to see what else I could get to enhance my images. Everything is all about timing and maybe when I asked for things, they simply were not available, or they weren’t motivated to give me those things. You need to be mentally strong and acknowledge your emotions. When you get rejected, you might feel disappointed, sad, embarrassed or discouraged. Once this happens, you need to acknowledge what you are feeling and then move on. It’s always good to have someone to talk to for emotional support. Another characteristic of mentally strong people is that never let rejection define them. They don’t declare themselves incompetent. Getting rejected in also a sign that you are pushing the limit. You should be happy that you are getting rejected. If you never get rejected, that means that you are playing it safe and you are staying in your comfort zone. In order to grow, you need to be outside of your comfort zone so that you can learn flexibility, you will learn new things and you will build self confidence.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS, YOU NEED TO HAVE AS MANY OPTIONS AS POSSIBLE. “Wealth is not about having a lot of money; it’s about having a lot of options.”― Chris Rock
You can’t let hearing the word no, affect your purpose or get in the way of achieving your goals. Life is all about having options. For instance, I wanted to get a yacht for one of my shoots in Miami but I had no budget for it. My value proposition for the yacht company was that the pictures would be published in my online magazine, TDink.com which had a sophisticated lifestyle demographic. When you want something but you don’t have the money to pay for it, you need to have a value proposition to get what you want. You will probably get rejected 7 out of the 10 times you approach someone, maybe 9 out of 10. For instance, if you want to get a yacht for a shoot, you will need to approach 10 to 15 yacht companies with a value proposition. I would have told them that I wanted to feature them in my online magazine TDink in exchange for letting us use it for the shoot. Out of the 10 to 15 companies we approach, only 2 to 3 of them would say yes. It’s all a numbers game. The companies that rejected us may have many reasons why. The yacht company might not need promotion or the yacht could be booked. The yacht people may have been screwed over by a previous photographer…you don’t know so don’t take anything personally.. There are so many factors that are beyond your control. To increase the likelihood of getting the yacht, you need to be a sales person and you need to be very clear and specific with your emails. You can see below for a sample email pitch that I would write. Notice that it’s very brief and to the point. The emails do not need to be long. Companies get requests all the time and their main concern is sales. Promotions are important but you need to learn how to craft emails that are succinct and to the point, to respect their time.
Dear Yacht Company, I would love to feature you in my online magazine which is all about fashion and lifestyle, Tdink.com. We get about 200,000 unique visitors a month and reach an affluent demographic. We would like to use one of your yachts for a quick photoshoot which will take about 4 hours. The crew would be about 6 people. In exchange, we will publish the pictures with the article about your company on the tdink.com and promote the article to our social media channels – Instagram (300k followers), Facebook (200k followers), Twitter (200k followers). I am the photographer. You can view my work here: dclee.net I have been published in Vogue, Harpers Bazaar and have worked with many celebrities – Lady Gaga, the Kardashians and many more. Please let me know if you are interested. Thanks David Lee (photographer)
If all of the yacht companies reject you, that means that there is something wrong with your pitch and that it needs to be altered. You need to figure out how to increase your value proposition. This may be additional social media posts, better talent, higher quality pictures, more social media exposure, coverage in other publications etc. I knew if I couldn’t get a yacht location, I could use my apartment. It’s always good to have a backup plan. THE WORD “NO” ONLY MAKES YOU MORE POWERFUL. “Freedom comes when you learn to let go, creation comes when you learn to say no.” Madonna Ciccone
Hearing the word no and saying the word no only makes you more powerful. When you hear the word, “no,” it means that you are living on the edge. You went out of your way to request something that isn’t typical which means that you are thinking outside of the box. Thinking outside of the box is the only way to spark true innovation and creativity. Throughout my career, I’ve had some pretty outlandish requests. I was doing a shoot in Jamaica for the fashion designer Anne Bowen and I asked for 5 things – a yacht, an exotic animal, a Rolls Royce, a mansion, a helicopter and a set of twins. I only got a no for the set of twins! Most people would never ask for these things because they are afraid of hearing the word no. For me, I have no fear. The worst thing they can say is no. In this case, I got 5 out of the 6 things I requested…and I don’t think that a set of twins was the hardest thing to find. I think the twins were just not available in the network I’ve had. I asked my client for these things and she went into her network to find them. It didn’t cost any extra money, but only enhanced the shoot, a win-win for everyone. You will attract two types of people – those who give and those who take.
Something that I’ve learned throughout my career is that in the past, I’ve entertained those who take because I feared not being liked. I didn’t evaluate them to see how much they contributed to my life and kept on inviting them to my shoots, parties and excursions. I had to reflect and look into my soul and ask myself, what was my purpose. For those takers, it was not my job to keep them happy or help them. I should have said “no” to repel them from my life. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been much more wary on recognizing and dealing with low vibrational energy. Now, I just tell them no, and they tend to just go away. If something is really meant to be, they will find a way to motivate me to support their projects. Life is too short. You don’t have a lot of time to make a difference in the world and remember, time is so precious because you will never get it back.
Motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” You need to choose wisely with who you surround yourself with. If you hang out with somebody who is a bad influence, that will waste your time and put you in bad situations. Analyze the behavior of people you surround yourself with. Ask yourself what they contribute to your life. This is a good practice to do every 3 months or so. These top 5 spots are so crucial. If you find that certain people have more of a “taker” personality, just spend less time with them. It’s ok to have them as an acquaintance, not everyone needs to be a friend.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I didn’t take the conventional route to get where I am today. I may have started by studying hard, getting good grades and having a lot of success growing up. After I graduated from college, I knew that the possibilities were endless so I took so many risks and some paid off immensely. When I was young, I knew the luxury I had was time. I used my time to pursue my passions and be in the places that I knew I would find inspiration and opportunities. I met so many people and kept in touch with them. I helped as many people as I could and it all paid itself back 100 fold. Through this method, I was able to work with hundreds of celebrities, have my work shown in Vogue, In Style, GQ and many more.
As an artist, I use my previous experience to tell my stories. I’ve been to 40 countries for 1 to 4 months at a time and through the journey, I have experienced so many cultures and learned from so many incredible generous people. I take those experiences and apply them to my photoshoots, video shoots and biohacking endeavors. My mindset is global. It is boundless as I turn my visions and imagination into reality. I know how to blur the lines between fantasy and reality and the result turns my life into pure bliss. I’ve had my vices in the past (food and alcohol) but I’ve gotten over these and they are things of the past. Through fasting, I’ve learned how to detach myself from food.
Recently I did a 7 day dry fast of no food or water. It brought be to a new spiritual high where my body was able to heal itself. I feel that my entire body aged backwards and now I have the knowledge but a body that can do anything. I have placed a huge priority on my health. Previously, I used to be all about finding pleasure through experiences, parties, food, and alcohol. Now I know it all comes from within and my physical and mental health are number 1 priorities. Being in the scene, I’ve been around negative influences that have sucked the life out of me but now I know how to recognize them and push them out of my life.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Runyon Canyon Secret Beach in Malibu Baltaire Restaurant in Brentwood Peking Tavern in downtown Sushi Park in West Hollywood Remedy Place in West Hollywood Kreation on 3rd St Peninsula Hotel Bar in Beverly Hills Heritage Wine in Beverly Hills Sam Woo in Rowland Heights Young Dong Tofu in Arcadia Santa Monica Rollerblade Path Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Shawn Pereira Jennifer Maguire Norm Lee Jeanne Lee