Ross Lewin uses photography to pursue both his professional and personal ambitions. The 27-year-old Columbia native abandoned a marketing career to follow his passion behind the camera.
As a photographer, Lewin shoots portraits as well as sports teams. He founded Cameras Against Cancer, a nonprofit that channels funds to research and pays cancer sufferers’ hospital bills.
We caught up with him as he was editing one of his photo shoots.
How did photography for you transform from a hobby into a profession?
My father was a hobbyist photographer and he would have people over for photography clubs. I wasn’t extremely interested in it until I finished my sophomore year at University of Maryland – College Park, when I took a summer job as a telescope photographer in Ocean City.
Did you do your undergrad in marketing with photography in mind?
Not even. The first time that I picked up a camera was that job in Ocean City. I really excelled because I brought my personality to it. You have to be very demonstrative and have good social skills. I had to run along the beach, talking to families and couples, convincing them to do a photo shoot. They come to the studio later, and you sell them pictures. It’s a sales job mixed with photography.
So describe how the entrepreneurial side of your career came to be?
I was selling radio ads for Clear Channel — I Heart Radio, an Internet radio platform — in Rockville right after college graduation. I made lots of phone calls. I did well, but it just really sucked the soul out of me. I needed a change and needed to do something I really enjoyed.
At the ripe old age of 24?
Maybe even 23. I wanted to do what I really love to do and was willing to work really hard. I started HoCo Photo right then. I just jumped into it. Every day, I‘d go to a different sporting event at the Howard County high schools, and I would show up at a JV game. I would take pictures in the first half, and then I’d go up in the stands, talk to people and pass out my business cards. In that first year, I shot over 400 high school athletic teams. I registered my company name with the Maryland government and I got business insurance.
Why shoot high school sports?
As a high school wrestler growing up, I remembered there were never any pictures of me on the mat. Also, my dream was to be my own boss. I’d do these shots during the day, and at night I’d go onto YouTube and try to teach myself even more. I learned based on necessity.
Did you go to these schools because you didn’t exactly need media credentials?
I wanted to shoot every day, and I didn’t have gigs then. I just picked places where I could just show up. I looked into the Howard County Public School web page. From that, I started to make a name for myself. My first gig was County Sports Zone. They hired me to be their photo blogger. Parents [of student athletes] would ask me if I did headshots or family portraits.
Where have you been abroad?
In 2010, I did Birthright Israel, and went to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I also went to Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam in 2014.
What do you remember most about your Birthright experience?
[Israelis] have great pride in fighting for their culture. When going to the [Western] Wall, I wanted to feel some presence of God — and in a sense I did. I remember feeling the collective energies of the millions of people that fought for that spot. I felt more closely connected to my Jewish friends. I felt great Jewish pride.
Describe Cameras Against Cancer.
I gathered beauty professionals and massage therapists and asked them to volunteer for a total modeling experience for our donors. Because of the volume, we’re able to charge affordable rates. All of the donations from these prints go to cancer research and support. The donors are paying for the photo shoot. We’ll take anyone that’ll be a model.
How much have you raised?
The first one in October 2015 raised $1,600 on the Broadway Pier at Fells Point, and in April at the Natty Boh Tower, we raised over $3,000 [both Baltimore]. We’re donating all of the proceeds to Zaching Against Cancer, a nonprofit in Howard County that provides financial support to families needing to pay their cancer bills. Our next event [on May 15] is at Haven on the Lake at the Lakefront in Columbia.
Your marketing and sales experience helped to develop your business acumen, but what have you learned most in the past few years?
I work really hard. But I consider myself really lucky in that I have been able to combine work and play. Each day is not a grind. Work hard, play hard is my motto. I hope that doesn’t sound too cliché.