We had the good fortune of connecting with Spencer Williams and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Spencer, how do you think about risk?
Risk is inherently a frightening topic at first glance. No one likes losing something important to them, and the thought that the loss could come as a direct result of a choice they make, especially when the option of not making a choice at all is on the table makes the initial risk itself even more difficult to navigate.

For me, my idea of taking on risks has evolved from one that I feared into something that over time I have grown to understand will never leave. You cannot defeat risks by not taking one, nor by taking them and seeing them pay off. Risk is part of the game.

I was born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and lived there for the first 27 years of my life. It’s a wonderful place. My family lives there, many of my friends live there, the vast majority of what I would consider “familiar” lies in Tuscaloosa. It was also there that I attended the University of Alabama, and worked to earn my master’s degree in marketing analytics and as you can imagine, the topics of statistical probability and risk mitigation were often the topic of many lectures.

It was also during that time that I really began to develop my own business in my free time. I was doing freelance photography here and there, making some money, but not near enough to fully sustain myself at that time to the point where I could leave my actual part-time job working at the University. But it was fun. It was so much fun that I then decided the risk of not being paid for every job outweighed the reward of having all these cool new photos to work on, and the eventual elation I felt seeing someone’s face light up as they liked the end result. Because hey, at the end of the day I was still making money with my other job and this was just something fun to do in my free time.

Without breaking it down like that at the time, I had broken through the first barrier of what I then perceived to be risk as it pertained to photography, which was spending large amounts of time on it instead of things which on paper would have proved more fruitful at the time. Like doing practice interviews for the well-paying jobs our professors would often tell us would be waiting on us as soon as we walked out of graduation.

Nearing the time for graduation I remember vividly the thoughts racing through my head that told me I was making a mistake by not going through the interview process like most everyone in my class, finding a career within my educational background of expertise, and getting around to photography when I had time. But I had time.. now. And in that period of a few weeks there was a distinct swing of the pendulum for what I even considered myself to be risking based on my next set of choices. If I had set photography to the side for that time and instead gone through the whole process of finding a “real” job right out of college I wouldn’t be risking the time I had spent buying the camera and the time investing in learning how to use it, all that was already gone, I would have instead been risking forcing myself to follow a path I knew in my head I was not comfortable with in exchange for the security of a full-time job. I was risking becoming someone I didn’t really want to be.

Some time had passed since graduating earlier that summer and unsurprisingly no one was coming to my rescue. I was worried sick. I didn’t want to let my parents down, but I knew the path I had chosen and was hard-pressed to stick to it. So in the meantime my friends and I continued taking photos for fun on the weekends, and I would take any gig I could find to continue to be able to afford gas to drive myself to the next shoot.

This was all so strange to me, I had never previously been this person. I was always the shy kid who didn’t like to shake things up, I didn’t enjoy the feeling of not knowing what was going to happen next. I told myself I must have just made a lapse in judgement as school was ending and didn’t want to face the facts that I needed to just buckle down and give up on this little dream. The threshold of risk I was willing to take on regarding my future quickly began to dwindle.

A few weeks later the phone rang. It was a political consultant. She said there was a mayor’s race down in Mobile, Alabama coming up and she wanted me to take the photos that would be used in all of the advertisements and social media. I remember being very confused as to why she called me for something like that, I also remember instantly saying yes. There was no need to check the calendar, it was wide open and had been for far too long.

So all of a sudden in my mind the risk of chasing my passion was worth it again, if for no reason other than that I had stubbornly waited things out. I felt like a rebel.

I packed my bags and drove down to Mobile in June of 2017 for six weeks of uncertainty. I was getting more and more used to the idea of living with uncertainty, but there was no getting around the fact that of all the shooting I had done in the two years prior, political photography made up exactly none of my experience. I had no idea in my head of how to shoot a mayoral election, but I knew that I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by. Opportunity. This wasn’t a risk, it was an opportunity! The only risk was letting fear and doubt keep me from jumping in once again and learning on my feet, and hoping that instead some other type of job I was more comfortable with would find me.

Six weeks later on election night I texted my dad with the news. We won. He and mom were ecstatic. They had always been proud of me but I think that first campaign was the first time they were proud like they were then.

By the time that I returned to Tuscaloosa, I was already lining up my next several jobs. It all felt real to me all of a sudden. I no longer considered it a risk to not go after a “real” job, the risk now was not going focusing all of my efforts into making it possible to to continue shooting and putting myself out there in uncomfortable situations to see where they would lead. And that made all the difference when it came to the kick-start of my full-time photography career. I attribute a great deal of my self-confidence as a creative professional to the time spent down there, and the friendships I made in the process.

So fast forward to now, and I have had opportunities to shoot all kinds of things all over the country. From political campaigns located any and everywhere, to national tours with musicians, food photography campaigns for brands and really anything else that comes along, I’ve stayed busy. It’s been an amazing ride that I’m so glad I got on. I don’t plan to get off any time soon.

It’s funny how no matter how long you play the game, in the moment, many risks you take often seem full of finality and consequence. But then you get through it, one way or the other. For example, the biggest risk I have taken in the past year was once again packing up my car, this time with everything I owned, on January 1st of 2020. I turned my tires out west and drove to Los Angeles to see if my successes with my business in the southeast would translate to California. It was the start of a new decade, a new chapter in my life as well, and I felt I owed it to myself to take the risk.

To say I didn’t know what I was getting myself into would be a gross understatement given that two months later the entire world would come to a standstill. Last February and March oftentimes felt like I had finally taken one risk too many.

And yet life keeps going either way, and as time passed I once again began finding opportunities, though few and far between at first. Similarly to when I first went out on a limb after graduation, I was prepared to wait it out. I mean hey, I didn’t come this far just to come this far.

So here we are now. No matter how long passes, no matter how many photoshoots I do, or how much experience I gain over time, the future is always going to be full of risk, so my approach to handling these uncertainties is that it’s best to just roll with it.

By the way, given that it’s four years later from when I did that first political shoot I now find myself back in Mobile, Alabama. Writing this from my good friend and teammate Cory’s dining room table. He and his wife Jen have allowed me to stay with them at their house while I’m here. After such a turbulent year last year, it feels good to be back for another summer of photographing the campaign to help get the mayor reelected once more. It feels less risky this time.

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.
In addition to the political photography I mentioned in my main answer, I’ve also focused a lot of time into studio and editorial, as well as travel and adventure focused work. I think what sets me apart would be the combination of having the professional experience in many different areas of photography, coupled with an educational background in analytics and data. Having both made turning the what was a hobby into an actual business and advertising myself much easier.

I’ve learned that things are never quite as good or as bad as they seem, and that it’s most important to remember that no one cares what you did yesterday. What can you wake up and get done today that will increase the probability of your dreams becoming a reality tomorrow?

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I would definitely take them for burgers at Burgers Never Say Die in Silverlake, first and foremost. You gotta eat well while you are on vacation and to me they do the best burgers. We would have to go out to the PCH at some point, maybe grab Jon and Vinnys to-go and then go eat out on the cliffs at El Matador. Now that Cinespia is back I think that would be a really fun and unique thing to take someone visiting to as well.

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Shout out to my bro Jeremy for putting me in touch with you guys, right off the bat!

My lifelong friend John was the catalyst for all of the political photography I have done, because as it turned out he showed my work at the time to the political strategist that hired me for my first ever gig. It’s crazy to think how much has happened because of that. I was truly getting ready to just move on from photography at that time then all of a sudden, boom.

Website: www.mccrayplace.com

Instagram: @Spencer_mccray

Nominate Someone: ShoutoutLA is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.