Matthew LaVere, 28, Freelance Photographer

Humans of the Gathering, LCMS 2016

I grew up in Livonia, Michigan, which is a suburb of Detroit. I was adopted from South Korea when I was four months old. I have other adopted siblings. I went to school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I travel quite often for my job. I’ve been doing that for a while. I’ve pretty much always been a Detroit native.

As a freelance photographer, I never know what’s going to come up. What I do is editorial photography. What that means is the output of my images end up in magazines, print, or blogs. I’m trying to tell a narrative about a person or place. I specialize in environmental portraiture. If I’m going to photograph a welder, I’m not going to photograph him against a paper background or a studio; I’m going to photograph him in his natural environment. So for the reader, as they’re reading the story, it puts him in a context so they want to read more. My goal is to accurately represent the person or people in a picture.

People’s stories are important. Stories, in general, help us build a community. Individuals might be struggling with something, and if someone else reads it, it helps them feel like they’re not alone. I’m always driven by people who have success stories. People who have proven others wrong. I never know when I’m going to get paid, and I never know the next job. My faith has a lot to do with that.

I didn’t have a great job coming out of college. It paid well, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. Unfortunate events in my family and with my friends made me realize that I want to make my life count. I didn’t want to be just good enough. I always wanted to serve and use my talents. Five years later, I’m using my gifts at the Gathering. God is glorified by me being a photographer and using my gifts for his glory.

What it really comes down to in the business is how good you are with people. For me, I learned that you have to be enjoyable to work with if you want to keep getting hired. The way I glorify God in my work is by treating people with dignity and respect. Being persistent is part of my brain, and part of my brand is being nice to people. Sometimes, it’s challenging. Rain or shine, I still want to create photographs. Life isn’t just a bunch of rainbows, but we don’t do it alone. It can be hard to talk about religion with clients, but God is still glorified every day.

There are a lot of moments where I’ve felt humbled. My first year in the business, I only made $7,000. I was traveling to New York City and still living in Detroit with my mom and dad. My best friends have seen me at my worst. Worst, meaning I wasn’t in a good financial place. Everyone was getting married, having kids, and having their jobs, and I wasn’t. I was very upset about that. I remember I was going out to eat with some friends and literally had to scrape together pennies to eat dinner at a restaurant with them. Now that I’m making more money, I try to pay it forward. It can change someone’s day to lend a helping hand. It’s how Jesus lived. Everyone has a unique story. Everyone has something that they’ve overcome.

I’m still trying to figure this out with my own identity. My own upbringing has always been nurture over nature. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t have an opinion because I’m not Black or white. I grew up with positive stereotypes because I’m Asian. It was always, “You got an A on that test because you’re Asian,” not because of my own skill set. Not because I studied for six hours. I’ve always felt like I’ve had to prove myself, that it wasn’t just because of the color of my skin. You have to work hard; nothing is ever handed to you. But, sometimes I feel like I don’t have an opinion, that I can’t be heard because I don’t fit in either category.

I want to do a trip to South Korea, but to be honest, I don’t mind sharing this, I’m scared to go to Korea because I don’t speak the language. I grew up as an American. The fact that I look Korean, but don’t speak the language might not be acceptable. In America, I look Asian. People don’t view me as an American, they view me as an Asian. Sometimes, I don’t know where I fit in. There are days that it really gets to me, and there are some days when I don’t worry about it. I also speak Spanish and Italian. It throws people off, like when I was in Italy and could speak the language. Sometimes, it’s confusing. I’m still trying to work it all out.

For a while, I really struggled with my faith, like when I started freelancing. I had a lot of friends succumb to addictions. I struggled with knowing my purpose and what I am here for. It helped me remember that all of us are sinners. All sins are equal, and no sin is better or worse than any other. We pray for repentance. We go up for Communion. Coming back to that and breaking that down again helped me realize, you know, if someone’s trying to be hateful, I try to forgive them. I try to be more patient, less judgmental, and understanding of what they’re struggling with. Or if I sin against someone, it’s the same thing. I’m a control freak. I have to have quiet time to admire God’s beauty and what He’s done already for me in Jesus.

I have a great career that allows me to do what I love. I have gone through these trials to go back and appreciate what God has done in my life.

I started freelancing on Palm Sunday of 2011. I always celebrate that as my anniversary. That year was a really tough year. I only made $7,000. You cannot live off of $7,000, even with help. I worked as a photographer’s second assistant. I had the chance to work a job where I’d get compensated well, and the photographer I worked under actually said I was the best second assistant he’d ever worked with. This was a huge compliment.

Fast forward a few months to December. I hadn’t allocated enough money for taxes, so my spending was completely frozen. I couldn’t buy Christmas gifts, put gas in my car. I couldn’t go out with my friends. I was getting really depressed because of it being gloomy wintertime in Michigan. Unfortunately, the holidays have always been a stressful time for me as well, so I wasn’t in the best mindset. I wasn’t in a healthy place.

The photographer called me and said, “Hey, Matt, I don’t have the okay to hire you yet, but I want you to hold the entire month of December. I’ll find out in 24 hours if I can hire you. If I do, you’ll be traveling the whole month.” In my mind, I thought this would be perfect. I could buy Christmas gifts, get some more money, this would be great.

Forty-eight hours later, he called back to say he couldn’t hire me. I had to turn down two one-day jobs to hold out for this one. In the freelance world, you do a cancellation fee, or a kill fee. It’s a percentage of your day rate that you charge because you have to let go of a job. I had never done that before, and I didn’t want to sound greedy. So I said it was okay, but I mailed him a thank you card. I thanked him for at least offering the position to me.

He called me after the New Year, and he said it was a huge mistake not hiring me. That’s great, but that didn’t help me in the month of December. I almost threw in the towel. Four months later, in April, the photographer called me back and said that he needed me for a 45-day guaranteed job. I worked for 45 days straight. I actually started crying because I never thought I’d make it this far.

I try to put my ego aside so I can really be sure that I’m serving my clients and that they’re being taken care of. Even when things don’t work out, I still send people a thank you card. I still show people kindness and be a little bit different.

Photo credit: Nathan Harrmann, LCMS 2016 Gathering Media Team

These Exclusive Stories do not necessarily reflect the teachings of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. They are the reflections and thoughts of participants at the 2016 LCMS Youth Gathering as they wrestle with what it means to be a child of God. Please continue to pray for these participants as they grow in faith.

LCMS Youth Ministry
LCMS Youth Ministry leads, serves, resources and networks youth and adults as a community of God's people where Jesus Christ is the central focus. Every three years, LCMS Youth Ministry hosts the LCMS Youth Gathering. The 2016 Gathering marks the 13th Gathering since 1980. Learn more about other resources and events hosted by LCMS Youth Ministry at www.lcms.org/youth.