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Despite challenges from disability, a photographer finds success in weddings

Jaleel King 1

Carving a niche in wedding photography, Jaleel King can often be seen roaming around the floor of a ceremony or reception, squeezing into tight spots to get the perfect shot. Shooting weddings is notoriously laborious, but it’s even more challenging for King, who has to juggle his responsibilities from a wheelchair.

When King was eight, he was shot in the back with a sawed-off shotgun, an experience that’s left him unable to walk since. Now 37, the Philadelphia-based photographer credits his career to fellow shooters who encouraged him to push his boundaries. At first, he thought about getting into fashion photography “because I figured I’d meet pretty girls and be in all kinds of magazines,” he says. “That was a dream that quickly faded, but it was still fun to pursue, and ultimately what happened was I thought about expanding my circle and getting out of my comfort zone and meeting photographers.”

Some of them suggested he try photographing weddings, but King was initially hesitant. “I was afraid of getting someone’s wedding wrong due to circumstances,” he says. Admitting he put up a number of roadblocks for himself, he eventually decided to give it a shot.

Jaleel King headshot

Jaleel King

Photography has always appealed to King because it was something he says he could do on his own. While there are certainly physical obstacles to shooting from the seat of a wheelchair, much harder to overcome is the perception of others.

“The thing I like to tell people in life is, the difference between me and other people is that you can see my disability. It’s blatantly obvious. It’s here, in your face,” he notes. “For a while I wanted to avoid it. I didn’t want it to define me. If my work was good enough, no one would judge my ability based on my wheelchair. They would only see that this guy did great work.”

But for many people, the wheelchair and the work are inseparable. “This is something people are always going to have issue with, regardless of what I do or who I am. It is what it is, and I still have to do what I do.”

Constantly pushing himself in every sense of the word, King has overcome his reluctance with the help of fellow photographer friends. We chatted with him about his foray into photography, the challenges of shooting from a wheelchair (as well as the perception it adds), and tips for budding wedding photographers.

How did you end up as a photographer?

Due to my disability, I was put into jobs I wasn’t quite happy with. It was a lot of desk jockey-style jobs and I’m the type of person who likes working with my hands and being very interactive with people. Ultimately I ended up getting really sick after getting a good job working in IT. I went back to school in video production thinking that was something I could do even if I got sick again. This seems to be a trend with me, quite honestly, getting involved with activities that aren’t cohesive for people with disabilities or jobs where you find people with physical disabilities, especially when you have to be on the ground floor working your way up, and most of the time it was grunt work running from here to there or being in tight situations. I did a little bit of each for a couple years.

I had a friend who kept me in the loop with different things. On one particular occasion, he kept me in the loop for trying to put together a reality television show for another person with a disability who was a music producer. On this particular day, we went out there and he was having a photo shoot. It was the first time I had seen anybody doing an on-location photo shoot. I just restarted everything from that point on. I dedicated myself to making photography fully working for me.

Is photography something you grew up doing?

It wasn’t, but I’ve always had an interest in photography. What ended up happening is a friend of my mother’s, he had cameras and things of that nature. We were talking, and I think I showed him photos I had taken with a point-and-shoot. This was before digital was even remotely viable and if it was, a camera was as much as a car. He gave me my first SLR camera [in 1997 or 1998], which was a Canon A-1.

Jaleel King 3

At that stage for me, it was something I could do. I didn’t have to rely on anybody, and I could just have fun with it. There was no pressure. There was no pace. I just had a great time utilizing this tool and equipment, and you know the whole journey of seeing what you got. You couldn’t look at the back of your camera then. I wasn’t exactly making any money. Any roll of film for me was an adventure. There was a time I would shoot a roll of film and I couldn’t afford to get it out for three weeks. That’s how crazy it was. It was always a passion.

Any roll of film for me was an adventure.

When I was going to school, I asked myself, do I want to go to school for computers or photography? At the time, my thinking was photography was too competitive. Now, photography is very competitive because with digital technology everybody wants to be a photographer or thinks it’s easy to be a photographer versus paying your dues and learning the craft. I figured if I had my financial freedom and independence, photography was something I could teach myself. I did a pretty decent job teaching myself about photography, but I’ve gotten better since then. I like to hope I did anyway.

What are some of the challenges of shooting from a wheelchair?

The height thing is often the challenge, but I think it’s one of the things that makes my work more interesting from my perspective. When [clients] see my work, they tend to like the perspective that I see.

Jaleel King 2

A lot of things are not being able to get to places that I want to because of the wheelchair. I would love to be able to go on the beach but wheelchairs and sand don’t necessarily always mix, and I know they have special wheelchairs, but it’s not the same as being able to come on and come off as much as you want, or the idea of wanting to get to a jetty and getting photos of the water crashing and things of that nature. Even here in Philly, walking some of the paths are difficult if I want to do some more nature locations.

Have clients been hesitant to work with you because of your disability?

I’ve had a few who outright cancelled appointments once they found out I am disabled. I had a potential wedding client. We did a whole conversation. She wanted to meet at her home. I don’t know what her home was like, and most places aren’t wheelchair accessible. I let her know I was disabled, that I had a disability and I was wheelchair bound. However, to make things easier for her, I said we could find another location in which we can meet. I had everything ready. I called her to confirm everything and she gave me an excuse for why she couldn’t meet.

When [clients] see my work, they tend to like the perspective that I see.

Later I find out from the person who referred her was that her mindset was, if I can’t meet her at her home, how could I possibly capture her wedding? And you know, I wanted to be upset, but a part of me couldn’t. The person who referred her was more upset than I was. But it was the first time I said to myself: You know what, she wasn’t my client. It was the truth. She wasn’t my client for a number of reasons, but more importantly she wasn’t my client. I find my clientele tend to be extremely happy, outgoing, fun-loving people and individuals who just enjoy having a good time. That’s kind of how I am. She’s not the only person who’s ever going to feel like that, and I had to come to terms with that. Also, it was another place for me where I had to recognize that the reality and the dream of having my photography speak for me more than my wheelchair was not something that was going to be separate. They had to come together.

Why do you enjoy photographing weddings?

I think I enjoy the challenge. I love challenges but more importantly, I’m sort of a hopeless romantic. I love the idea of a love story, and I enjoy the idea of telling a story. When I do shoot weddings, that’s my goal, to be able to tell a story. I want to be able to capture a story. It’s easy to take pictures of a day, but pictures don’t matter if they can’t tell a story. When you have great couples who smile and have a great time, and I don’t know, die hard for each other in relation to making their unions, that’s kind of the thing that makes me realize life is so precious and these moments are fleeting. A lot of times, I’m very much honored to be apart of that day.

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What’s your setup like when shooting a wedding?

When you can, you scout. I do my best not to shoot by myself, either an assistant but normally a second shooter. It’s no fun shooting a wedding by yourself.

I love the idea of a love story, and I enjoy the idea of telling a story.

As far as my setup, I shoot with a Canon 1D Mark IV. That’s the gist of it. My primary is my 70-200 IS II which I love. I shoot with anybody – one of my buddies, he shoots Nikon. I also shoot with a Canon 600 DX. A lot of the gear I tend to get is gear focused to make things easy for me. I started off with getting a new PocketWizard at one point in time because they had controllers which allowed me to control the output and power of my flashes. That means once I’m set up, I don’t have to go back and adjust because something wasn’t quite right. It’s the same thing when I decided to upgrade to the new flashes with radio triggers because I could control everything without having to go back and forth because once things are set up for me, they’re ready to rock out. There are times where some things are harder to set up. If I’m doing a portrait setup, I have to adjust power. If you have something already set and ready to go, you tend to lose the connection when you have to go back and forth to adjust power and things like that for your lights, where you can’t adjust things on your camera.

And what tools or services do you use in your work?

When I went to Vegas [for the Wedding and Portrait Photography Conference and Expo], I had good time to sit down and talk with the people who were part of SmugMug (photo-sharing service) – happy-go-lucky people you couldn’t but be happy to talk to them. What they ended up doing is they went back in my backend, helped readjust it on-the-spot at a trade show. You can’t beat customer service like that, especially in this day and age. Customer service is so important and especially when it’s for people who use the system, work with the system, and understand how it works. It makes it easier for me in the long run and present to clients in a clean and effective way.

Jaleel KingI dealt with another company before. It felt very corporate. It felt like, “Oh yeah, we know that’s problem, but we just don’t care,” whereas with SmugMug, “Yeah, we understand where you’re coming from, and that’s part of what we’re working on. In the meantime, this is what we can do to help you out.” That means a lot to me. It’s the same thing with dealing with your clientele as a photographer. A happy client is always a great client, and they shout your praises, which will hopefully lead to more clients.

What do you use for post-processing?

I try my best to keep things as natural as possible, so I don’t go crazy. Part of that is probably because I hate the hell out of retouching. But Lightroom is what I do, and 99.9 percent of everything is done inside of Lightroom. Unless I have to do something more heavy handed, that’s when I tend to go into Photoshop because it’s a little faster to use the clone and heal tools. Outside of that I don’t do much to my work, anything too crazy. I really never learned the benefits of dodging and burning much, not too much of that. I do my best to keep things as I see it outside of black and white. Sometimes I’ll do some cross processing. I’m still playing with techniques and things like that.

Tell us a little about your gallery.

I’m starting to have some gallery showings with my street work, so that’s kind of cool. I had one last year this time, and we’re supposed to do another one about a month and a half ago but the problem was the elevator broke in the building, so we had to delay that. I’m not too sure if we’re going to do it or not.

Last year I had my first one, and it went really well. I was very surprised with the amount of people who came out to support me, but I was really surprised people actually bought my work, which I was not expecting at all. You always have family and friends who come out and support your work, but it’s very interesting when you have perfect strangers come out and invest in what you’ve done.

Do you have any tips for wedding photographers?

Don’t be afraid to be different. There is no true manual with it.

Be engaging, have fun. If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

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Not everyone is going to be your client. Just because someone waves money in front of your face, it’s not worth taking.

More important, be you, have fun, and practice. And also surround yourself with good people who are willing to be honest and open with you.

Anything technical to add?

Composition is important.

Shoot for the moment. Just because your camera can shoot 10 frames per second doesn’t mean you should hold your finger down. This way you’re not shooting so much and doing as much post processing. Shoot to tell a story.

It’s not really about your gear. It’s about how you utilize it. You don’t have to have the best gear to capture great moments. What I started doing is I take myself back to the days of film again. You don’t go and shoot a 36 roll in seconds. I hate when I go back and say, “Why do I have 2,000 photos of this?” We’re overshooting, overworking ourselves. I’m doing more headshots preparing for my next assignment and I’m looking at the results. With the first model, I kept three photos, next kept 20, next kept 30. I don’t need them all.

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