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My Path to Photography

Eckhart Tolle once said, “In seeing who we are not, the reality of who we are will emerge by itself.” My decision to become a photographer and commercial artist wasn’t a lightbulb kind of moment, but more of an illuminated path I followed towards finding myself.

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Image by Chris Winton-Stahle

What feels like a lifetime ago, I was working towards a college degree in psychology. I knew in my heart that it wasn’t for me; I didn’t function well in the corporate structure, and I felt completely unfulfilled. As a result, I was very lost for a few years of my adult life. With the help of several mentors, I had some new doors open into the world of advertising and design. I was starting to understand that I was naturally a creative mind and that my place was in the arts. It was during this period that I rediscovered my passion for photography, something that I had forgotten about since spending time with a camera as my high school yearbook photographer. From there, everything became crystal clear.

This path felt right! I applied to the Photography & Film program at Virginia Commonwealth University because it is one of the top art schools in the country and I was accepted — I was on my way! I would not have been able to make such a bold string of decisions without the tremendous amount of support from my mother. She had grown up in a time when the idea of making a living as an artist was outrageous. Painting was her passion, but she was forbidden by her parents to go to college for the art because of family beliefs. She was one hundred percent in support of me pursuing my dream and that was a strong foundation for success from the very beginning. I quickly learned that finding and embracing the people that encouraged and supported my decision to become an artist was crucial!

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Image by Chris Winton-Stahle featuring ballet dancer
Jeannine Halphen of Stavna Ballet

Of course, there were those who doubted I could do it and felt it was an unwise life decision. Thankfully I didn’t listen to them! Sometimes though, I doubted myself but I soldiered on, seeking out and finding great mentors and choosing to ignore negativity. I was a hard worker, always pushing the limits of my assignments and challenging the status quo. Still to this day, I constantly push to elevate my craft to the next level. I work in collaboration with other artists on portfolio building projects. I strive to create a body of work that represents where I want to go as an artist, rather than where I’ve been so far.

One of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on was an advertising campaign for the university I graduated from in 2004. The project consisted of composite images for 12 award-winning programs at VCU. The advertising agency created an entire campaign around their basketball team, the VCU Rams, reaching the Final Four in 2011. School spirit was insanely high, and all of the students and faculty were celebrating! The theme was “Our Time, Right Now”. I couldn’t help but feel that I had, at this point, come full circle with this project. Having started as a small town high school yearbook photographer to becoming the lead artist on a major advertising campaign for the university from which I received my degree was a huge accomplishment for me.

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Image by Chris Winton-Stahle

There is no doubt that photography is a difficult field in which to make a living. This is true, and any veteran of this craft will tell you the same. There are times when I feel frustrated and exhausted, but I dust myself off and I always push forward. The truth is, my brain is not programmed to do anything else. I am an artist! I did not pursue this profession because it was the logical path to choose in an effort to obtain financial wealth or security. I was called to this industry after trying out several other career choices that did not bring me happiness before following my heart to commercial arts. Though it is never easy, it is always rewarding to me.

I try to look at the unique industry challenges as an adventure and a series of opportunities to grow stronger in my craft, wiser in my profession and more enlightened in spirit. I remind myself every day how very lucky I am to be able to do what I do. It is my calling and it is what makes me feel the most alive. I am confident that when I reach the end of my journey as a photographer and artist that I will not look back and say, “Oh man, I wish I had made more money” but I will back and say, “WOW, Look at all the amazing places I’ve had the opportunity to travel, the wonderful people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made from all over the world, and look at all of the amazing images I’ve created that have, in some way, brought beauty to this world.”

Christopher Winton-Stahle

Chris Winton-Stahle is an award-winning photographer and accomplished photo illustration artist who sees the camera as only half of his process in creating great imagery. Chris often pulls components from multiple images and CGI when creating his work for clients in advertising, magazines and entertainment.

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  • Marcus - 2 years ago

    Right with you Chris. Had a very similar experience but with less supportive parents and as a result spent 27 years doing the wrong thing!!

  • Chris Winton-Stahle - 2 years ago

    Marcus – Good for you following your heart! Always gotta listen to that subtle voice inside. Most often it leads us in the right direction. I’ve always appreciated the mistakes in my life because they’ve taught me how to improve. It’s a difficult thing to step away from discomfort when it becomes all we know. It’s a scary leap of faith! When we do though it’s like a huge weight that lifts from our chest, allowing us to breath and for life to begin again.