By Yilin Wang
This interview was conducted in 2016.
Jamie Tsui graduated from the Johns Hopkins Applied Math and Statistics department in 2008. He was born in Taiwan but raised in Los Angeles before attending Hopkins for his undergraduate degree. During his time at Hopkins he explored several areas and shifted from Computer Engineering to Mechanical Engineering to ultimately Applied Math. After graduating from Hopkins, he began his full-time career at Stanford University, and in 2012 launched his own professional photography company.
He found love twice in college, and followed them to the Silicon Valley: It is a common knowledge that Hopkins is well-known for its academic-driven atmosphere. You could say it is either an engineering-focused school or a humanity-oriented one, but photography and arts wouldn’t first come to mind. But how did Jamie find his passions for photography at Hopkins?
Q: How did you fall in love with photography in the first place?
A: I met my wife in freshmen year at Hopkins. She loved to travel, and I developed an interest in photographing our travels. At first I did lots of nature and landscape photography. In junior year, I wanted to get somewhat more serious about learning and purchased my first DSLR camera. It wasn’t until 2011 when I really started taking photography seriously and learning everything I could from it, especially from watching workshop videos on Youtube. It was also around that time that I was invited to my first wedding amongst my friends, where I took photos as a guest. I found taking photos of people to be a unique and rewarding challenge and ultimately developed a passion for it, which is why I launched my professional wedding photography company.
Q: Why did you decide to turn photography into a profession?
A: I think when you are interested in something and become passionate about it, you just want to keep improving. After my first experience photographing a wedding as a guest, I felt like I found something that I really enjoyed and could keep learning about. In 2012, I took a leap, put together my portfolio and website, and started my small business. By that Fall I had shot three weddings with my wife assisting me; over time, I started hiring second photographers and assistants. I’m the lead photographer for my company, Eggsposure, and would reach out my team to assist on shoots depending on their availability. Although the photography industry is getting more and more competitive, I’m always thinking about how to keep our niche and brand unique and attractive to customers. While I essentially work two jobs to ensure my financial security while also pursuing a passion, I respect and admire those who can fully commit their passion even with all the practical pressures of life.
Q: You’ve walked a long way in the field of photography from your time in college to now, and from Baltimore to the Silicon Valley. What do you think has changed in your relationship with photography, or the photography industry itself? Why did you come all the way to the Silicon Valley to pursue your career?
A: After I started charging for my photography work, I also had a higher standard to which I held myself. My photos had become my products which customers paid for, instead of serving as simply a hobby for me. As for the photography industry, while the entry barrier of the industry was lowered, people’s understanding of the industry has become deeper and as a result customers are more demanding. Unlike the past, a “professional” camera has become a lot more affordable, drawing droves of people to the industry. At the same time, I feel that people nowadays are more open to pursuing their passion, as I’ve seen and read about people from all kinds of industries, from med students to investment bankers, drop their career and join the photography industry.
I came to the Silicon Valley for several reasons, though primarily because I found my first job here, and because my wife chose Stanford for her graduate education. Over time, I’ve grown to really appreciate the environment and culture of the area; Stanford is truly the epicenter of Silicon Valley which has aligned with my life-long interest in technology. Plus, having grown up in California, I felt it was a great and familiar place for pursing photography and my career.
Photos at Eggsposure, Websites at Stanford: Besides running his own photography company, Jamie works at Stanford as a web project manager. He went straight from Hopkins to Stanford after graduation, and his wife continued her study at Stanford.
Q: Why did you choose working at Stanford back then?
A: It wasn’t necessarily planned for me at the time; it was a result of the options I had in the job climate back then. 2008 was a challenging time for a lot of companies because of the economic crisis, making it extremely to find a job. Originally I had planned to go into the financial industry but even my friends who initially got offers before they graduated had those offers rescinded by Summer and Fall. Over 6 months, I applied to over 100 jobs, but Stanford was the only one to make an offer shortly after the interview. My wife’s plan to study here further confirmed my determination to come here.
Q: What is a typical working day like for you?
A: As a web project manager at Stanford, I coordinate and manage the development of large website projects around campus. More specifically, my primary account is with the School of Engineering, though my department does projects with the entire university. During the weekdays I work at Stanford from about 9 AM to 5 PM, then during the evenings I’ll be handling all the overhead for my photography business: editing photos, responding to emails, having client meetings, or even doing photo shoots if there is enough light outside.
Weekends are usually dedicated to big photo shoots, especially weddings during the wedding season, but also other events such as birthday parties, fundraisers, graduations, proms, and so forth. In Summer 2015, we covered seven weddings in eight weeks, in addition to regular shoots like engagements and family portraits which was a lot of work to manage with also a full time job.
Q: How would you compare Hopkins and Stanford?
A: Stanford is a place filled with passionate and innovative spirits. It’s a world-class institution, so I feel lucky to be here with so many outstanding people. People are generally very happy to work here because the more casual academic environment, and Stanford tries hard to have a culture that is very work-life balanced. Most groups are very accommodating with flexible schedules; you can leave work early if you need to tend to your family, such as attending a child’s baseball game. Stanford has a very strong sense of community.
I’ve never attended school at Stanford, so I’m not as familiar with the student life here, though I can try to provide some perspective compared to Hopkins: I would say that the level of competition at these two places is very different. For me, Stanford seems to be more focused on collaboration and has been very supportive as a community, whereas life as a student at Hopkins was much more individualistic. Stanford has a strong and tightly knit alumni network, but I don’t have the impression that Hopkins does as much. I think it’s great that you guys are trying to build that for Hopkins.
Q: How’s San Francisco treating you? As we all know, the Silicon Valley is a “dream place” for many Chinese engineering students. What’s your impression of the area?
A: The bay area, to me, is very unique, with the atmosphere filled with entrepreneurial freedom and motivation: You would feel behind if you weren’t working on your own startup, at least on the side. People are very open to different ideas and are willing to collaborate. It’s also very oriented around entrepreneurship, especially at Stanford of course. It should not surprise you if your Uber driver tries to pitch you their startup. In fact, Stanford has lots of courses to help prepare its students for starting up a company, and often times professors will end up advising the students’ companies. There are also programs available for people who are not students at Stanford and also not just for tech startups, such as for people who are interested in creating social or non-profit organizations and driving change otherwise.
Unfortunately, the high cost of living here can be a deterrent for lots of talented people interested in moving here. Nonetheless, I still want to stress the fact, though, that there are tons of opportunities here: Even Stanford has trouble hiring people sometimes, because as a university it can’t match the compensation of industry here. Instead, it makes up for it with intangibles such as its vibrant campus, strong community, and fulfilling mission and work-life. I would strongly advise anyone interested to come and experience the area. Even with the high costs, the opportunities in Silicon Valley are rewarding and worth it.