Head strong and heart driven, a bold career detour is what it took for our latest Aje Insider to find the path less travelled. Leaving behind a 9 to 5 and background in finance for a life in the arts, the New York native and freelance photographer, may just have found her true calling. Jet setting from Kenya to Mumbai and Jaipur in the last year alone, she has amassed an enviable client list including the likes of Cartier, Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany and Co. With a distinct vision and determined drive, meet Alice Gao, self captured in the Las Vegas desert.
FROM ECONOMICS TO PHOTOGRAPHY, DESCRIBE YOUR JOURNEY TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY
My degree is in economics, but photography had been a hobby since I was 12 or so. I never considered it a viable career path, partially because I just didn’t know any successful creative people when I was growing up or going through university. I lived in a bubble where finance, medicine, and engineering dominated. When I moved to NYC to start my day job, I started shooting anything and everything almost every day and published a lot of it on my personal blog at the time. I eventually decided to quit my job and pursue photography full time and after saving for several months, I made the leap (without having had a single photography job booked back then!). This was almost eight years ago -- the rest of the journey could be a whole novel itself, so I’ll spare you the details for another time!
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY IN YOUR LIFE LOOK LIKE
Honestly every day is different, which is part of the appeal. I think I actually function better without distinct structure. Some days, I barely leave my desk and am just catching up on emails and admin work or working on production for upcoming shoots. Other days are travel days. And other days are actual shoot days and those can be long but rewarding.
HOW DID YOUR FAMILY SUPPORT YOUR DECISION
They didn’t, at first! There was actually a long period of time where I’d get into these phone fights with my mom and I’d literally hold my phone out to the side to avoid listening. I know she was just concerned about the stability of what I was about to embark on, but I always left the conversation in tears or anger. My dad just mostly kept silent. I think it’s particularly risky to embark on a creative freelance career when there’s no safety net -- my family and I were all immigrants and I know they were hoping I’d choose a steadier path since they really came from nothing.
WHAT YOU'VE LEARNT ABOUT YOURSELF AS A RESULT OF THIS BIG SHIFT
I’ve learned that I can embrace the uncertainty of freelance life. Though sometimes I am terrified no one will ever hire me again and sometimes I still live paycheck to paycheck, it is that fear that also drives me to do better. Only 1% of the time do I envy friends who have a steady “9-5” day job.
ADVICE YOU WOULD OFFER ANYONE LOOKING TO TAKE A LEAP INTO THE CREATIVE WORLD
It’s trickier now than ever because it’s so easy to share your work with the world today, and as a result, there’s more and more clutter and noise out there. It’s more important than ever to slow down and figure out how to best express your point of view. I believe consistency and a distinctive vision are key to standing out nowadays.
“It’s more important than ever to slow down and figure out how to best express your point of view.”
DESCRIBE YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS
For a client shoot where I am in charge of the creative, I typically put together a moodboard and general scope of the shoot. I determine location, mood, lighting references, etc. But a lot of times, my creative thoughts and impetuses for shoots happen on the fly. I could be in the shower (or on the toilet - TMI - as cliche as it sounds) and I practically have to run out and jot down my ideas before they go away.
YOUR GO-TO SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
Going to galleries and museums is generally a great source of inspiration for me. Travel in general as well. And sometimes it’s actually beautifully written prose that gets me inspired to create something visually to represent how those words made me feel.
CAREER HIGHLIGHT SO FAR
I went on a trip last May with Tiffany & Co to Kenya to experience the wildlife conservation efforts of the Wildlife Conservation Network, which one of their collections supports. It was one of those life-changing experiences that I have a hard time describing in words. From the generosity of the people there to the epic landscapes to the gentle nature of the wild animals, it was the kind of horizon-broadening trip that I could only dream about.
YOUR FIRST CAMERA WAS
The first one I bought with my own money was something from the Canon Powershot S line -- I saved up babysitting / tutoring / and mowing lawn money for it!
BEST PART ABOUT LIVING IN NEW YORK
The energy and drive here is contagious. It really is the city that never sleeps.
FAVOURITE ADDRESSES YOU CAN SHARE AS A NEW YORK LOCAL
For eating and drinking, you can always find me at –
La Compagnie des vins Surnaturels
Vini E Fritti
For shopping –
The Primary Essentials
HOW LIVING IN NEW YORK INFLUENCES YOUR WORK
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. I feel jaded about certain things about the city, but at the same time, living here makes me appreciate so many details and exposes me to so much culture that I wouldn't get elsewhere.
WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP
I wanted to be an epidemiologist for the longest time! Also a forensic scientist. I was obsessed with the show CSI.
“I feel jaded about certain things about the city, but at the same time, living here makes me appreciate so many details and exposes me to so much culture that I wouldn't get elsewhere.”
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT VALUE YOUR PARENTS INSTILLED IN YOU WHILST GROWING UP
Live below your means. It’s extra hard in this “keeping up with the joneses of social media” day and age, but I do try to never go beyond my limits.
A DESTINATION / TRAVEL HIGHLIGHT THAT WORK HAS BROUGHT YOU
Besides Kenya, I also visited three cities in India last year (Mumbai, Jaipur, and Jodhpur). I was completely blown away by the colours, textures, and culture of the place. The food of course was incredible as well. I already dream of revisiting for a longer period of time.
“ ... I think I actually function better without distinct structure.”
DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE
I would say it’s fairly minimal and classic with a slight edge where possible. I have to dress practically when I’m on a shoot, so that means comfortable shoes and mostly black attire (to minimise reflections or colour cast).
FIVE WARDROBE STAPLES EVERY WOMAN SHOULD OWN
Ooh I can’t speak for everyone but for me it’s:
High waist straight leg jeans
Perfect ribbed tee
A good belt
A coat that makes you feel like a million bucks (for me, it’s my camel Céline coat)
DUBBED THE 'JEAN QUEEN', WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN GOOD DENIM
It’s definitely changed a lot since I was dubbed that in high school! Back then I wore low-rise bootcut or flared jeans (the horror!) that would graze the floor or worse, even drag beyond my shoes. Now, the perfect jean to me is made of 100% cotton, has a high-rise (ideally with a zip fly because buttons are such a pain in the ass), and cropped right above the ankle. The wash is super important to me too; I think that’s why I love hunting for vintage Levi’s for that perfect lived-in colour.
WHAT DOES YOUR STAR SIGN TELL US ABOUT YOU
I am probably more blunt and direct than I should be! (Sagittarius)
LAST BOOK YOU READ
‘What We Were Promised’ by Lucy Tan – a beautiful and heartbreaking read, especially as an immigrant Chinese-America.
WHAT'S NEXT ON THE HORIZON YOU CAN SHARE
I’m finishing up a long and painful renovation on an apartment I bought two years ago. It took one full year for the renovation to be approved (during which it literally just sat there unused) and another full year for the construction to actually go through. It’s a super tiny apartment, which makes the timeline all the more ridiculous! I can’t wait to properly share it with the world though!
Aje Insider: Alice Gao @Alice_Gao
Location: Las Vegas, United States