Many photographers fall in love with the lens at an early age. Others develop their passion for taking photos in school. But Full Sail University Digital Media graduate Matthew Coughlin’s story followed a bit of a different path – one that would find him changing trajectories nearly a decade into a successful advertising/digital media career to become professional portrait photographer/entrepreneur.
Professional visual communications journal Communication Arts recently selected Matthew for their 2015 Award of Excellence. His work was chosen as one of 157 projects that were selected from a grand total of over 4,000 submissions, and will be included in their Photography Annual that publishes in July. Getting published is nothing new to Matthew; his client list includes ESPN The Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Runners World Magazine, and Outdoor Life Magazine. But being spotlighted in the most exclusive major photography competition in the world is a milestone that does feel a bit surreal.
“If you were to ask me five years ago if I’d be doing photography professionally, I would have laughed,” Matthew says from his home in Pensacola, Florida. “I never would have dreamt that I would be where I’m at right now. And I love it.”
A Pensacola native, Matthew first attended a local college with aspirations of becoming a videographer. After working in the industry for a bit, he decided to continue his education at Full Sail, enrolling in the Digital Media (now Digital Arts & Design) program to learn more about video and motion graphics. After graduating in 2005, he returned to his hometown to raise a family and work in a law firm as a multimedia specialist, utilizing the web and design skills he’d acquired to handle all of the digital needs for their advertising and marketing department.
“It was a great company and an excellent job, but I personally didn’t feel creatively inspired and totally fulfilled,” he says. “Around 2010, we purchased a DSLR camera to shoot video and I became pretty intrigued. I began taking it home on the weekends to experiment more, and within a year I bought my own personal camera.”
With his creative juices flowing, Matthew began teaching himself the craft of photography while immersing himself in the online photography community via social media platforms like Flickr. He soon found himself fielding offers for paid gigs from people who were impressed with his portrait work. But it was a chance experience with one of his idols and a future Grammy-winning rapper that was a turning point for his career.
“I won a seat as part of the live studio audience for a show called ‘CreativeLive,’ hosted by [professional photographer/director] Chase Jarvis. The theme of the episode was about pursuing your dreams, and I was really inspired by the show’s guest, Macklemore,” Matthew says. “I had no idea who he was, as this was a year before his big album [The Heist] was released. But it was very inspiring to hear them both share their stories and to hear their passion. I came home and decided I was going to work to pursue photography full-time.”
Since then, he’s done just that – building his clientele and shooting portraits throughout the Southeast, including a shoot for Business Alabama magazine which produced the photo for which Matthew received the Communication Arts award.
“The story was about a seafood dealer along the coast of Mobile, Alabama. One of the guys who works there had just brought in a huge fresh catfish. It was probably about 40 pounds and 36 inches long,” Matthew says. “I took a photo of him holding it up, but took a very minimalistic approach. It was just very calm. I’m still on cloud nine about the award. I’m in an annual that I never dreamed I could make it into for at least another 20 years.”
With the demand for his photography at an all-time high, Matthew quit his law firm job of nine years in mid-2014. Though the story of his career has been anything but traditional, in hindsight he’s able to recognize how each step in his journey contributed to where he is today.
“It took a long time to get to a place where I am not only able to provide for my family, but I also emotionally feel successful, and that in itself is as rewarding as creating the art itself,” he says. “You could take all the money out of this experience, and I would still take portraits every single day. When I get the lighting just right and see my subjects on the screen, it’s just an amazing feeling.”