Ever meet someone who literally is so upbeat and happy that they can’t help but greet you with a big smile and hug every single time they see you? Ask anyone in the photo industry and you know: that’s Jaleel King.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jaleel at a studio event several years back, admiring his exhibition of gritty BW street portraits from afar, then meeting the man behind it all who simply said: ‘Dude, that’s a sick beard! Let’s take a photo together!’ Who can say no to that, right? Anyone who’s met either of us wouldn’t be surprised to know we continued to chat for the rest of the night - we're definitely a pair of talkers. It was great meeting someone new whose work really stood out to me and more importantly someone who made you realize you're taking life too seriously. For a lot of people, this video put together by a friend of Jaleel, Mike Allebach, was how they were introduced to this very inspiring individual:
This video is what really launched Jaleel's career after going viral and being featured on various sites and blogs. What's interesting to note though is that while his work is solid, what resonates with most people is his infectious personality and smile especially after hearing about his story of what landed him in a wheelchair at just eight years old.
Since most of us find it too invasive to ask, I'll just tell you: while setting off fireworks one hot summer day before the Fourth of July, an irrate neighbor came outside with a sawed off shotgun and Jaleel was struck in the back paralyzing him from the waist down.
"It was murder. The fact that Jaleel King still lives is just a detail. The shotgun pellets that tore through his back July 1, 1984, destroyed one of his kidneys, a quarter of his right lung and part of his liver." - Philadelphia Daily News
However, on this particular rainy day while I sat at a corner cafe waiting for Jaleel to come by to catch up and interview him for this article I couldn't help but notice when he came in that his appearance seemed a bit dimmer than usual. Naturally the Hurricane Joaquin rain didn't help anyone's mood, but I definitely noticed something off with Jaleel. Being the Chatty Cathies we are, we sat for hours talking about the details of his story about finding photography some 15 years after his shooting and what he's been up to since we last saw each other. Yet, it was when we got to the topic of how the last few months have been that the conversation took a somber turn.
Depression - it's something that many people feel uneasy talking about, especially those of us in the creative arts.
Artists that struggle with bouts of depression are not uncommon - however, in today's 'always-be-selling-yourself' social media world, honesty and openness are rather obscure. This shouldn't come as any surprise of course, the idea of social media and sharing platforms are what has launched this new entrepreneurial boom; where anyone with an idea, a Twitter and Facebook page and some hustle can launch a successful business. While a fascinating time in our culture, it's still so early on in this development as a society that we can't tell what these long-term effects are.
Just think about how many artists/actors/comedians/musicians we've lost to suicides, overdoses, and automobile 'accidents' - all of which were way too soon. It seems that the immense pressures that many of the Hollywood/limelight elite deal with are suddenly becoming norms for many everyday people and artists. The idea that we must always be making our lives seem like one endless success-party, all for the sake of appearing busy, worthwhile artists is jarring but one that is seemingly accepted in today's world. Yet, just like anything else we do for the sake of our art and to make a living we somehow justify the irrational behavior. When Jaleel brought up his struggles in the days/weeks/months after he was part of something big like speaking at WPPI, working with Profoto on the new B2 lighting series or the rush of bookings after being featured on the Fox 29 news, only to then deal with coming home and suddenly be alone again. I couldn't help but sympathize with that feeling, one I've known all too well over the years. Everyone tells you you're crazy to take on the peaks and valleys that come with being a career creative, but we all agree the highs make the lows very worth it. However, that doesn't mean the valleys aren't very dark times because they can be. This sudden rise to a level of notoriety had Jaleel reeling; wondering why he was suddenly an inspiration to so many, leaving him to feel on edge about saying or doing the wrong thing that could have everything taken away just as quickly. Everyone in today's society knows one undeniable truth - the mob is fickle.
Speaking about the downtime after a successful period, Jaleel gets visibly upset asking, 'Why is it we can't talk about this shit?'
To which I really couldn't find a good answer as I've been a victim to these periods in my creative and personal life as well. Jaleel went on to tell me that the false sense of success on social media from 'likes' and 'followers' has made him take a break from it all and said he hasn't even posted a photo on Facebook in almost a year. As a photographer I was taken aback, but then when I thought about my own Facebook photography page, I realized it's been nothing but Instagram posts and occasional shots of my kids the last year too. Like many artists, I've dealt with times of being burnt out on my art leading me to take a part-time gig or a full-time job over the years just to provide some sense of a break, as a way of building my yearning to create back up again.
"Worry about being true to yourself and everything else will come."
For many of us these time periods are when family members and loved ones pull you up out of your 'funk'. However, there are times when someone simply being nice and looking out for you has you questioning why or what their agenda is - we as humans are notorious for self-deprecation, especially artists. We don't think we're worth even having a friend who really cares about us and wants to see us feel better, instead we look back at our successes and see them as simply not enough. Jaleel talks about a WPPI photo contest he entered a couple years ago where he won 2nd place [Photojournalism-Non Wedding Category]- yet only afterwards mentions that out of the Top 10 final images selected to pick out the winners, four of them were his! He admits that he rarely remembers to take pride in that fact; it seems we only see the negative in our accomplishments as a way of pushing ourselves for more, to do better and grow as artists.
Sure some may think we're just being dramatic about it all, but just think of any A-list celebrity you admire after they win an Oscar or Grammy - that one amazing success is so short lived before the pressures set in again, "Will I be able to repeat this success again? Or be labeled a 'one hit wonder'?" This constant struggle to find repeat-ability in success to have clients, agencies, and studios know that you're dependable and consistent makes us lose sight of the little victories along the way. It's this sort of feeling that is notorious with writers, whom society thinks have endless ideas and books just brimming inside of them waiting to put them to paper for everyone to enjoy. All this to simply stay relevant in a world of instant gratification.
When does one then simply enjoy their success?
Yet, it's not all doom and gloom for Jaleel. Recently he's been learning to accept help from others and just learn to say, 'Why not?', as opposed to making all the excuses as to why he can't or shouldn't do it. It's been this thinking that recently had him go all the way to Australia to speak at the Zero Regrets Conference, which was a life-changing experience for him. However, it wasn't always easy and after spending an amazing three weeks in Australia with inspirational creatives like Jeremy Cowart, James Day, Oli Sansom, and of course the Zero Regrets founders, Matt and Katie Ebenezer, it was the coming home off that endorphin high to be alone, again, that brought Jaleel crashing to a halt.
Manic-depressive behavior for any creative is not that far of a reach. And how could you blame us? Times with tons of interaction, motivation, collaboration followed by stark periods of isolation and working in a vacuum. It's this issue of always being inside looking out that makes us miss the most obvious things at times. Whenever Jaleel has those moments, somehow the universe reaches out with some good karma - like a friend or acquaintance reaching out with some genuine thanks or even a random email from a stranger who says Jaleel literally saved his life as they had been struggling with suicidal thoughts. Things like these always seem to come at just the right time. Professionally, the highs came calling once again with Profoto reaching out to let Jaleel know that he'd been added to their official speaker list which led to him speaking at the Hallmark Institute in MA to an eager crowd of young students who loved hearing his story.
To be honest, I really had no idea when we set aside time to meet for lunch and catch up that we'd suddenly be talking for an entire afternoon about such deep topics that affected us both for years. In doing so we both realized that this is a much bigger problem than anyone is really letting on - mental health in this country is an enormous issue, especially so if we let it lurk in the shadows not allowed to be spoke aloud in public.
Jaleel and I hope that you're able to pass this along to any friends in the creative arts who seem to struggle as well with the roller-coaster lifestyle that comes with making a living off art - to simply let them know, they're not alone. To learn to accept help when it presents itself and if not, to have the courage to go out and ask for it.
In efforts to continue staying busy, you can join Jaleel at the PhotoPlus Expo in NYC later this month, where he'll be doing a photowalk - Street Photography: Finding Life, Subjects and Portraits.