I believe wholeheartedly that every situation can teach you something. No matter how much time has passed or how painful the experience, all those life moments and choices—even careers left behind—lead to something meaningful.
They add up and transform into wisdom that you get to store away in your very own knowledge toolbox. So that one day, when an opportunity presents itself, your tools are ready to battle those negative voices telling you “you can’t do this” or “you’re not qualified.” F*ck all that. You’ve got to use what you’ve got.
I didn’t dream of being a photographer. No one handed me a camera at the age of five nor do I have any stories of being an aspiring artist as a teenager. But, (there’s always a “but”) was I always drawn to the arts like a moth to flame? Yes, I was. Yet I never pursued a career in this field because that’s not what Indian kids did in the 80s and 90s. We were hammered into believing professions as doctors, engineers, business owners, etc. were the only steady career choices. The only way to make a decent living so we’d be able feed our offspring one day.
I don’t have a degree in photography. I’ve never assisted other photographers before starting my career. But I figured shit out. I had the willingness to learn no matter the obstacle or my current life situation. I practiced and screwed up a lot. I attended photo workshops while caring for a toddler. I went on small jobs while pumping breast milk in a back room. I battled imposter syndrome constantly. I basically did whatever I had to—thankfully with the support of my husband—to pursue my dream even if the fruits of my labour were mere peanuts in the beginning. And did this in my 30s when most people are already grounded in their profession of choice. Side note (and metaphorical thorn in my side): A few hundred bucks for an assignment is the stark reality of getting your feet wet in this industry. Unfortunately, it devalues the job we do and the skillset we’ve worked hard on honing. Don’t get stuck in this cycle. Know your worth.
I had finally found my people: aspiring artists, writers, thinkers, creators. Our collective weirdness and individuality was a breath of fresh air.
My path to becoming a photographer wasn’t a direct one and I’ve lived several different lives before picking up a camera professionally. Yet every one of those former careers has come in handy in my current role. My first career was in advertising. I started out as an assistant account executive on the American Airlines account. I was fresh out of university and felt very sophisticated and important. And though scheduling meetings, making presentations, working on competitive analyses and taking copious notes during conference calls was a part of my job description, I realized quickly my heart wasn’t really in it (full disclosure: great account folks are awesome allies who make creatives’ lives way easier). The creative department was where the cool kids were at. They “concepted” and presented “storyboards” and did “pitches” for new business. They won awards and went on “photoshoots.” They played pool and foosball and called it “brainstorming.” They wore ripped jeans and t-shirts to work. They had swagger. It was a world I wanted to belong to but being the dork I’ve been my entire life, I stayed on the fringes and just peeked over the walls of my cubicle.
Eventually, those cool cats and I started hanging out (turns out, they thought I was cool too—go figure). I spent most of my time fraternizing with art directors, copywriters, graphic designers and creative directors. And the more I did, the more I questioned my professional identity. I’d always been artistic in some way/shape/form but never creatively confident (thanks Indian parents). But before I could deal with my issues, 9/11 happened. Our worlds came to a screeching halt. An American Airlines aircraft, a Boeing 767, hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The entire country—and the world for that matter—was on high alert. It was time for damage control. American Airlines, the agency’s biggest client, pulled all advertising for the remainder of the year. The company was bleeding and the wound needed to be cauterized. By late September, agency-wide layoffs had begun and a day after my birthday, I was given my marching orders.
Four months later, I landed another account job this time working on Nestlé. But again, I found myself in the cool creative circle, picking brains and developing the courage to do what I should have done months ago. After a short eight months, I quit my job, moved to San Francisco and started Miami Ad School’s Art Direction program. It was the best decision of my life. I had finally found my people: aspiring artists, writers, thinkers, creators. Our collective weirdness and individuality was a breath of fresh air. Those two years—spread over San Francisco, Chicago and London—allowed me the time to understand and accept myself. After I graduated, I went back home to begin my first job as an advertising art director.
I want to stay true to the creative vision from start to end.
The guy I’d been dating through my creative transformation ended up becoming my husband. I moved to Puerto Rico, where he was working, to start our wedded life together. Island living may sound like a dream but it became increasingly isolating and difficult. My career in advertising came to a screeching halt thanks to a tiny market and my inability to speak Spanish. I wasn’t creating or being challenged (other than on what to make for lunch). I was in a full-blown existential crisis. I had to figure out what to do with my life and being on perpetual vacation was not it. I started spending more time in the kitchen and became enamoured with baking, creating pastries and learning about chocolate. I fed people and subsequently fed on their positive feedback. My new career had been decided. I convinced my husband and family, then headed off to New York City to join the Pastry Arts program at the French Culinary Institute.
I loved learning about the science behind cooking: why some ingredients, when paired, reacted in a particular way; why they transform under heat or with the addition of an acid; the complexities of milk; the chemistry of a recipe and how one ingredient or wrong proportion can throw everything out of whack. To me, the final construction of a dish was about both taste and colour: how would a guava Bavarian cream tart taste and look with a layer of dark chocolate ganache and then topped with fresh mango; or the visual contrast of a stark white coconut cream mousse on top of blackberry compote? Culinary school flung open the doors to the food world and my imagination. I did a stage at Bouley Bakery; I worked at Jacques Torres Chocolate. Both showed me the realities of the industry and how to handle the workload in a professional food environment. Once back on the island, I made small batches of pastries and sold them to a local coffee shop. I worked the pastry line in a fine-dining restaurant. I made wedding cakes and pulled my hair out while decorating them (I’d much rather be developing flavour profiles than molding sugar flowers). But even this version of my life would come to an end.
We left the island and landed in Los Angeles, a place where I’ve wanted to live since I was a teenager. And though I hung up my professional apron, it’s in this city where my career in food writing and food photography was born. I already understood how chef’s work and how professional kitchens were run, but I also got how food should look in an image. I started with writing and photographing editorial stories for Life & Thyme which began to shape my voice while I covered all aspects of food culture (and years later, would lead to a book I co-authored called A Woman’s Place). Simultaneously, I met my dear friend and agent, Jigisha Bouverat, who put me inside the advertising world once again. Every agency I had dreamed of one day landing an interview in or (gasp!) working in was now hosting our portfolio shows. Those same creatives I had once belonged to were now looking at my work. Pretty wild.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”Steve Jobs
Those years as both an account executive and an art director are ingrained in my creative process. I view every project through that lens. What’s the concept? Who’s the audience? What are the client’s concerns? What makes sense stylistically? What mood am I trying to evoke? I’m always doing that gut check for every project I work on. I want to stay true to the creative vision from start to end. And though I no longer work in a professional kitchen, I rely on that knowledge when I shoot food: how light affects the perceived “tastiness” of a dish; how liquid moves or falls; what props best compliment the finished look; how the food styling makes a food or beverage relatable—all these facets play back to those days in culinary school and working in the industry.
Our experiences make us who we are. And it’s that wisdom that defines who we’ll be going forward. I’m a storyteller through and through, and I feel blessed everyday that I’ve been given the ability to do what I love. But my journey isn’t complete yet. All those twists and turns may have led me to where I am today, but I’m still evolving. Though I’m currently a photographer, I’m also directing more; I’m moving beyond the commercial world into a more narrative space; I’m writing my first feature-length film I hope to direct soon. There’s no limit to what we can be or achieve. This I’ve learned first hand. Change is inevitable but it’s our past that shapes our future.