Kimberly Wessels talks about how she became a photographer, her favorite restaurants in New Jersey, and her favorite spot to catch a sunrise. She also shares words of wisdom for aspiring photographers.
Lauren — Travel and Write Today: How did you decide to become a photographer? When did you pick up a camera for the first time?
Kimberly Wessels: It’s funny, I never really chose to become a photographer, photography kind of chose me. I’ve always been a student of the arts. I’ve always loved the creative process, for as long as I can remember, ever since I was a child, taking painting, drawing and pottery classes. The first time I ever picked up a real camera….does that blue fisher price kids camera from the early 80’s count? I was about 22 years old, about to board a flight to go backpacking through Europe for the first time with one of my best friends. My mother was with me, an amateur but talented photographer in her own right, and she shoved an old 35mm Honeywell Pentax camera in my hands and gave me a crash course in f-stops, aperture and shutter speeds right there in the airport. I knew I loved it, but I never expected to pursue an actual career in photography. I suppose I went to Europe to “find myself”, like a lot of us do when we’re in our early 20’s and feeling kind of lost in life. I went back to college shortly after that, and pursued a degree in graphic design. I was accepted into the BFA program, but my professors kept pushing that I should major in Photography and not design, but I thought design was safer somehow, that I’d be able to find a job easier. I managed the photo lab and darkroom, while earning my degree, so photography was always kind of there, even when it wasn’t. I graduated in 2008, double majoring in graphic design and photography, but still struggled to find a path in graphic design. I kept working dead end jobs, terrible office jobs, bartending, waitressing, sometimes three jobs just to keep my head above water. But I kept creating, whatever I could. That process was like therapy for me, whether it was just sketching, or digital illustration or going on photo adventures, picking up freelance work whenever I could.
I was somehow able to start photographing local bands and musicians, seemingly by accident, mostly because my boyfriend at the time was in a band and they needed content. And I loved it, it was always for fun, to be able to combine my love for music and my love for the creative process, being able to capture those “IT” moments on stage. And then I was able to build a portfolio of really great work to have the backing to ask for press passes for bigger named musicians and bands, and it worked. Before long I was shooting for a couple of local webzines and digital publications, but it wasn’t a job, and it wasn’t paying the bills. I just kept doing it because it was always fun, but professionally I was still struggling to find my way.
Everything changed in 2016, when I met another local photographer through mutual friends which ultimately changed the trajectory of my career and my life. We had a ton in common and bonded immediately, and he was director of photography for a very large union based out of New York City, and he hired me as a freelance photographer. Not because he was my friend, but because he believed in me and my work, and I believed in the cause. I kept pushing, still working three jobs, until the union took notice and in 2019 asked if I would be interested in interviewing for a full-time staff position. In 2021, that Director of Photography retired, and ultimately, I stepped into his shoes as full time freelancer, and just this year accepted the role in an official capacity. Working in the labor movement, fighting for social justice, documenting not only our Union history but HISTORY history, and getting to be a part of something SO much bigger than myself is a privilege for me, and not something I take for granted or take lightly.
TWT: I love this story – photography “chose you”. I remember those toy cameras, and I love that you remember getting yours. I remember getting my first journal (thank you for reminding me).
TWT: I know you live in New Jersey – what are some of your favorite spots in the area? What are some of your favorite restaurants?
KW: I AM a Jersey Girl, to the depths of my soul. Jersey gets a bad rap, but I will defend our overpopulated little state with everything I have. I love the beach, any beach will do, but I’m partial to Bradley Beach, since I live about a half mile away, I ride my beach cruiser there for beach days. I love Asbury Park, a town filled with such an eclectic mix of music, art, grit, and grace. I shoot a lot at The Stone Pony, so that holds a special place for me. I also love that I live in commutable distance to both New York City and Philadelphia, that I can take a train to my office to work in Manhattan, and still leave the hustle of city life behind, and come home to my little beach town.
Some of my favorite Restaurants that you absolutely have to check out, number one on the list is Rooney’s in Long Branch. Some of the best seafood on the shore, with amazing service, and it’s situated right on the ocean, with great views and great ambiance. The Buttered Biscuit, in Bradley Beach, is a great little breakfast and lunch spot, but during the summer months expect to wait for a table because it’s that good. I also love the Iron Whale on the Asbury Park Boardwalk – some of the best oysters I’ve ever had, and their Brussels Caesar Salad with seared Tuna is to die for. For pizza, my new favorite spot is The Galley in the north end of Asbury Park, best pizza around, and that’s saying a lot in NJ, with a pizza place on every corner. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Belford Bistro, a tiny little hole in the wall in Belford, casual fine dining, but their food is an absolute experience.
TWT: These restaurants are officially on my list! We will go to one the next time I am in the area!
TWT: Who are some of your favorite musical artists (I know Dave Matthews Band!), and can you tell us about one of the best concerts you’ve attended?
KW: LOL, yes, Dave Matthews Band, 123 live shows and counting. Living in Springsteen County, Bruce is also on the list. My mom is turning 70 this year, and she’s a HUGE Bruce fan, so my brother and I have been taking her to as many Bruce shows on his current tour that we can get tickets to. Others for me include Dispatch, Matt Maeson, AJR, Taylor Swift, Twiddle, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Robert Randolph, John Butler, The 502s, more recently Goose. It’s an eclectic mix, that has the tendency to change on a regular basis. I work out and lift weights to old school hip hop and Rage Against the Machine. I grew up on classic rock so The Beatles, Elton John, The Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys, Tom Petty and Billy Joel have never really escaped me either.
Naming one of the best concerts I’ve attended is nearly impossible, because having a background in concert photography, I’ve been to SO MANY CONCERTS. Probably more recently, Dave Matthews Band at the PNC Bank Arts Center here in NJ last summer, but only because it was my first time getting on the photo list for a DMB show, so I was able to shoot that show. It’s incredibly difficult to get on the press list for a DMB concert, and it was the white whale I was chasing for a LONG time. It was very surreal for me, and I think I cried through the whole concert. A few years back I got to interview and photograph Robert Randolph on his tour bus, and we talked a lot about the Broccoli Rabe he had ordered for dinner – that was a pretty wild experience.
TWT: What is your favorite book?
KW: Oh jeez, naming my favorite book is like naming my favorite photograph I’ve ever taken. How do you pick just one? I’ll stick with my tired and true answer of A Catcher in The Rye, it’s been my standard go to for this question for years, as it was one of those books that just left this huge impression on me, especially as a young-ish reader.
TWT: It is so hard to name your favorite books and musical artists!
TWT: What is your go-to coffee/tea order, and from where?
KW: Rook Coffee – this small chain of coffee shops here in Monmouth County NJ; a Bigger New Orleans Cold Brew, cream, 2 Splenda. Cold Brew anywhere really, but Rook is the best.
TWT: Where is your favorite place to watch the sunrise/sunset?
KW: We have spectacular sunrises over any beach here in NJ in the warmer months. I’m so lucky that I get to live so close to some of best beaches on the east coast. Fisherman’s Cove Conservation Area, in Manasquan, is one of my favorite spots to bring my two French Bulldogs to catch a sunset. A great spot up north is also Liberty State Park, directly across the river from New York City, with spectacular views of the Manhattan Skyline surrounded by cotton candy kissed sunset skies….
TWT: Sounds perfect.
TWT: Can you share a memorable moment you’ve had while working in this industry?
KW: Most recently the union I work for was protesting and rallying to bring attention to the New York State Governor’s cuts to healthcare funding in her state budget. Thousands of us marched through midtown Manhattan, closing down city streets, in the style of a New Orleans 2nd Line funeral procession, led by a horse drawn carriage and a small jazz band. In the spirit of Dr. King, some of our healthcare workers, along with our Union President, were arrested while participating in non-violent civil disobedience outside the Governor’s office on 3rd Ave. The fact that I get to be a part of this, to document historic moments like this, that I get to help people, to be of service to my union brothers and sisters if only with my camera, makes me feel like I’m on the right side of history. It’s extremely powerful imagery, and it’s an honor for me to march alongside my people.
TWT: I love that you found this role – it is perfect for you, and they are so lucky to have you. I love seeing all of your posts – it is inspiring.
TWT: What advice would you give to photographers?
KW: Never ever give up. Never ever stop shooting. Go out and shoot whatever you can, whenever you can, even if you’re not getting paid for it. Do it because you love it, and ignore the voice in your head that tells you aren’t good enough. To live a creative life means letting go of the fear of being wrong. And always always always back up your work.
TWT: I love these words of wisdom. I always remind myself that even if you are not getting paid you are still an artist, a writer, a photographer, etc.
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