jessica lee photography

Toronto Women's March in the Globe and Mail by Jessica Lee

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I recently photographed the Women’s March in Toronto for The Globe and Mail. The assignment ended up being featured in the Folio section for the print edition, and I was really excited when my photos were given a double spread. I am very grateful I got to photograph such a meaningful event as the Women’s March and document it historically. While there has been so much work done in the past to further women’s issues, there is still so much more work to be done.

2018 Year in Review by Jessica Lee

Summer 2018, not the sunflower farm that got closed down. Photo: Robbie Lòpez

Summer 2018, not the sunflower farm that got closed down. Photo: Robbie Lòpez

2018 went by in a blur for me. I started the year off, January 1st leaving a new year’s celebration on the joyous streets of Puerto Rico where I had spent the last days of 2017. The old town of San Juan, with its cobblestone streets and old colonial houses was alive with fireworks exploding in the background, the steamy night heat on my skin. I counted down to midnight, and toasted a few shots of whatever we drank that night, then headed off to the airport for a redeye flight back to North America. I spent new year’s day in freezing cold Boston at the famous Maritime Museum with its spirited penguins and sea turtles that swam in the huge aquarium that topped a few stories. Then home.

My year was filled with travels to nine new countries (thirteen in total); mostly by backpacking through Eastern Europe; a lifestyle and work adjustment; and many adventures. I visited my 50th country this year (Romania), read 33 amazing books and feel more in touch with who I am as a person. I have shed the idealism of youth and am more confident in handling novel situations both travelling and at home. I recently came across an article I had saved over five years ago called “Ten trips you need to take in your twenties” and realized I had spent the last couple of years doing most of them.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

The highlight of my year was not the physical places I went to, but the people I met while I was there. I admire the individuals who choose to pursue their own paths; as strange, unpredictable and uncharted as it might be. Usually, you meet these people by going to off-the-beaten path places, like in Macedonia where I met someone from the U.K. who was pursuing a Master’s degree in Albanian Art History. In Lebanon, I met a solo female traveller who had moved to French Guinea to teach math. She was a Parisian girl who traded in city life to move to a jungle where she found a pamphlet in her mailbox one day from the government titled “Living with Jaguars”.

This year brought a lot more commercial photography assignments, which I am grateful for. As I learn more and more about how to make high-quality images, I realized I am just scratching the surface of the nuances of making technically ‘perfect’ images. With commercial assignment work, the client expects perfectly-lit, expertly staged and styled photos, all of which is possible when you can control many elements such as the models you work with, your environment and studio lighting. With documentary or news photojournalism, most of the elements of that make the photo extraordinary are by chance; if the subject steps into the proper place, the lighting conditions that day and if you happen to catch an expression or an action, most of which will likely never be repeated again. Regardless, all of this work makes me a better photographer overall, which is the end goal.

Photographing the mountains at Zakopane, Poland. My friend Kris moved to Krakow in early 2018 and I was visiting him.

Photographing the mountains at Zakopane, Poland. My friend Kris moved to Krakow in early 2018 and I was visiting him.

I’m ending 2018 in great shape mentally, physically and in a good place. I’m typing this up from a beachfront bar on an island in Belize. It is a deserved ending to a hectic year, filled with many blessings but also many new challenges.

For those of you just joining me, every year, I run through a list of key lessons I learned throughout the year as self-reflection with the intent to help others who are reading. 

Experience is the name so many people give their mistakes. - Oscar Wilde

Here is what I learned this year:

Driving a golf cart to get around town in San Pedro, Belize

Driving a golf cart to get around town in San Pedro, Belize

1. Maintenance is a key and important part of life. I spent a significant portion of this year “decluttering” my physical possessions, a project I first started in 2013. I would spend whole days just sorting out old junk I would donate, organizing things that inspired me from high school, sorting through notes I had made during my college days. At the end of those long days, I would wonder how I got myself into this situation with a closet full of odds and ends. The solution is obviously to not create a mess in the first place, which I am working on. In five years, I plan to not have any junk that requires me to spend days of my life to sort through. Life is short, time is precious!

2. Cultivate good habits! At the tail-end of 2017, I went surfing in Puerto Rico and became so tired from paddling to catch the waves, while the locals seemed to have unlimited reserves of arm strength. As someone who has only limited time in warm climates with good surf every year, this was extremely frustrating, as the conditions were perfect but I was physically exhausted. I realized I had let myself become satisfied with easy workouts at home and hadn’t been pushing myself or keeping myself in tiptop surfing shape. I had unconsciously let the status quo of the people I worked with become my lifestyle too. Whenever they ordered take-out, I would do so as well most of the time. One bite of pastry doesn’t hurt. But If you let pastry pass through your lips enough times without going to the gym, soon you will be out of shape.

3. Actively cultivate a good crew who will encourage your good habits. Good habits will become easier when they are modelled by the people around you as “normal”. I am still working on this, but this year I have started surrounding myself with more freelancers who have to support themselves without a steady paycheque. These are some of the hardest-working people you will ever meet and I am grateful to be in their company.

Sailing around Toronto Islands without a crew.

Sailing around Toronto Islands without a crew.

4. Extra effort gets noticed. Earlier this year, I went to a tea shop that had a loyalty program for tea rewards. I went expressly to get my free bag of tea – nothing else.  However the employee working that day had a goal of selling me on anything, he mentioned the special of the day, which was a $1 tea. I didn’t need the extra tea (I had my own tumbler of tea in my car) but I was so impressed by his effort that I bought the tea. A $1 sale is not a lot of money. But from a $0 sale to $1, he increased my spending by 100%. If you upsell 10 customers a day, that is still not very significant, however if you do that every single day, that is $3650 – enough for a round trip to anywhere in the world, or an upgrade in camera gear, or whatever it is that your heart desires for $3650. Another example that really inspired me this year was Ami Vitale’s talk on CreativeLive where she described dressing up as a bush to photograph a panda that would be released into the wild. Amongst dozens of other photographers, she was the only one dressed up as a bush so that the panda wouldn’t realize she was there and wouldn’t be scared of her. The scientist in charge of the release noticed how empathetic she was towards her subject and allowed her access to all of the panda babies, which helped immensely with her photo story. I was so inspired by these two that earlier this year, I went the extra mile for a client, giving them much more photo content than they requested. They ended up buying double the images they initially were interested in because of my efforts.

5. Experience comes with time. This year, on my way home from Lebanon, I had a stopover in Casablanca, Morocco – the confronting place where I had travelled to on my own when I was young and overconfident in handling difficult situations. I learned a lot on that trip about what is accepted behaviour in different cultures, but mostly I learned how to survive in a foreign place where travellers are preyed upon, not just scammed (thank you Indonesia for that lesson). Morocco is a place where men routinely follow tourists around the city and harass them for money, to go to their relative’s shop, to sell their services as a guide, etc. It is quite scary when you are a young woman arriving to this for the first time during the night, which is what happened the first time I ended up in Morocco. Coming back to the same city almost five years later, I now knew what to expect and handled the man who followed me down the street, quite well, despite my frustration with him. Five years ago, a similar experience terrified me and I was able to reflect on how far I’d come.

Kids playing in Casablanca, Morocco

Kids playing in Casablanca, Morocco


6.  Think beyond the “pretty” photo and think about storytelling. I spent a large part of the year devouring classic literature and iconic photojournalism in an effort to learn from those sources. In my “studies”, I came across a photo by Andreas Feinenger, who made a photo of oil derricks. He described his thinking behind the photo and how he went far back to find the perspective that shows all the oil derricks close together. He did that deliberately so that people remember what oil stands for. When I read that, a light bulb clicked in my head. In 2019 and beyond, I will spend more time thinking about the meaning behind what I want to convey in a photo, as opposed to just making “pretty” photos, which I have finally started making consistently in difficult lighting situations.

 7. Spend less time fixing mistakes and more time making sure the mistakes don't happen in the first place. This year, due to recklessness, I ended up with a lot more parking tickets than any other year. In the grand scheme of things (compared to irreversible mistakes), parking tickets are a small issue, but I’d rather not make these mistakes in the first place.

On my first wreck dive in Cyprus, this year.

On my first wreck dive in Cyprus, this year.

8. Slow down. Earlier this year, I had a free coffee voucher that I was really excited to use. The ‘free coffee’ ended up not being free however because I had been so excited to get to the coffee shop, I accidentally scraped the side of a larger car I was not used to driving while backing out.

9. Always travel to learn. I went to many new places I had no preconceptions about previously and it filled in gaps in my knowledge, which is why I think travel and first-hand experiences are so important (if you’re not able to travel because of your circumstances, that is okay as long as you’re learning through second-hand sources such as documentaries or books). Prior to visiting Auschwitz, my understanding of the camp was limited to Viktor Frankel’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, Life is Beautiful, X-Men movies, Schindler’s List, Son of Saul, and the Berlin Holocaust Museum. The Auschwitz museum describes so much more of what the victims went through and I am glad I went even though it took great effort to get there.

Malta, 2018

Malta, 2018


10. Be committed. Tom Seaver, a Hall of Fame pitcher, received the highest percentage of votes to the Hall of Fame. In Angela Duckworth’s Grit, I read that he does not go tanning in Florida on vacation if he thinks he might get a sunburn which would affect his ability to pitch the next day. I love his level of commitment to his sport and have also committed myself to photography in the same way.

Bonus: If something is meant to be, it will happen. – At least, this is what I like to believe. One of the books I read, Marilyn Monroe by Donald Spoto described that as an unknown, Marilyn Monroe worked in a factory during the war when she was married to her first husband. From there, she could have “settled down” and led a quiet and conservative life hidden from the public, but a war photographer found her working at the factory and the photos started her career which eventually led to her to being cast in movies. Her dreams of becoming an actress could have ended when she got married and became a house wife at 16, but it didn’t. It’s almost as if that if someone is meant to be something to the world, it will happen.

The best books I read in 2018 (not in order):
1. The Social Animal – David Brooks
2. How Music Got Free – Stephen Witt
3. In the Skin of a Lion – Michael Odaatje
4. The Magic of Thinking Big – David Schwartz
5. Marilyn Monroe – Donald Spoto
6. Grit – Angela Duckworth
7. Swell – Liz Clark
8. Katerina – James Frey
9. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
10. Tender is the Night – Scott. F. Fitzgerald

Thanks for reading, see you all in 2019!

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Larnaka, Cyprus, earlier this summer

Larnaka, Cyprus, earlier this summer

2017 Year in Review by Jessica Lee

I spent a month this summer living in Riomaggiore, a small village of 2000 people on the Ligurian coast of Italy.

I spent a month this summer living in Riomaggiore, a small village of 2000 people on the Ligurian coast of Italy.

2017 was a busy year.

I checked a couple of things off my bucket list and lived many vastly different lifestyles during the year – from spending a month living in the Cinque Terre; waking up leisurely to the sound of waves; to spending hours of my life commuting in rush hour traffic in the sprawling Canadian metropolis known as Toronto; something I once thought I would never do.

But what’s fascinating about people in general is our capacity for change, and how each experience in our lives shapes who we become.

I make a year-end review each year, where I recount my biggest mistakes or discoveries aka “learning opportunities”, and figure out how I can live better next year based off of what I learned. What I realize now, after thinking about it for weeks, is that my so-called "biggest mistakes" from this year are actually not so significant in the long run. I missed a couple of flights because of not double-checking details, and had to buy expensive tickets last minute. And made some mistakes with who I thought I could let into my life. But all these mishaps are relatively easy to get over. The most important thing I learned in 2017 is that there are limitations to what one can achieve in a year.

The top of Erice, Sicily, where I experienced one of the most stunning sunsets in May

The top of Erice, Sicily, where I experienced one of the most stunning sunsets in May

A theme of this year was accepting where my limitations were, in terms of time and resources, as well as my physical and mental capabilities. I was commissioned to do more commercial photography gigs this year than any other year in the past and as a result, I did not have enough time to achieve all I set out to do at the beginning of the year. But I learned to be more forgiving of myself for not crossing everything off the list. That is important too.

January started off haphazardly in Bangkok as I was recovering from an injured knee from my December motorcycle accident in Vietnam. I was in the middle of my South East Asia backpacking trip which I started in October 2016 and was about to go to Laos for the first time. I would like to say I started the year off strong, but the honest truth is I couldn’t walk far from the pain in my leg, and I was drugged up on four different types of antibiotics. I spent the end of 2016 listening to the fireworks from the place I was staying at, then heading to bed almost immediately. Through this experience, I realized how much I valued my independence and health and being able to walk everywhere by myself without assistance. It was humbling to ask for help and to connect with people through their own stories of accidents/adventure. I learned to slow down because I literally couldn't go at my regular speed anymore. For someone who is very driven, sometimes forced relaxation is necessary. 

Vang Vieng, Laos in January

Vang Vieng, Laos in January

Dubrovnik, Croatia, in May

Dubrovnik, Croatia, in May

This year, I made a resolution to read 40 books and to visit ten new countries. I failed both, reading only 30 books and visiting only five new countries (Laos, Malta, Croatia, and soon Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico). More and more, as I’m getting older, I’m realizing there are limits to what one person can do in a year, or in a life even. When I was young, I used to have huge ambitions that I have since focused to just one or two big goals. There is just too much to experience in life and to try to do too many things risks not doing each thing fully and in depth. I would rather have a higher quality of experience rather than a quantity. I am grateful I’ve been able to do so many fun and eye-opening things in my twenties so far. 

The Pacific Northwest, more specifically, Vance Creek Bridge, Washington. My friend Eric took me here and challenged me to walk across. I took one look at the drop below and said "no". 

The Pacific Northwest, more specifically, Vance Creek Bridge, Washington. My friend Eric took me here and challenged me to walk across. I took one look at the drop below and said "no". 

I saw some truly beautiful and stunning sights this year on four continents. I also got to see some old friends I hadn’t seen in years because they moved, which reminded me how lucky I am to have made such idyllic memories with them in different parts of the world throughout my years of travelling and living in various cities. It’s bittersweet and sometimes odd to go through life without the physical presence of friends whom you used to see frequently each week but have since moved away and continued their own lives in different cities. I know this is something I will struggle with for years to come, but I have quietly accepted it as one of the solitary pains of being friends with globetrotters, adventurers and people unwilling to accept the immediate situation they were born into.

The top of Victoria Peak, Hong Kong with longtime friend Darian (who was with me during my motorcycle crash in Vietnam) and new friend Cheuk-Yin (also a photographer).

The top of Victoria Peak, Hong Kong with longtime friend Darian (who was with me during my motorcycle crash in Vietnam) and new friend Cheuk-Yin (also a photographer).

Fresh pizza on the streets of Rome with Julia, whom I met in Saskatoon in 2013. She now lives in Philadelphia with her fiance.

Fresh pizza on the streets of Rome with Julia, whom I met in Saskatoon in 2013. She now lives in Philadelphia with her fiance.

In June after a month of living in Italy and travelling around Eastern Europe, I ended up back in Toronto. I was there primarily to photograph the wedding season, but I also ended up experimenting with a new direction in my career by making a transition to work in the entertainment industry. To be clear, I am still a photojournalist and travel writer, but I also wanted to see the world of showbiz for myself because of my intense interest but also because I believe I have a lot to learn from such a tough industry. Growing up in Canada where we are known for our politeness, I used to take for granted how nice and helpful everyone was. Through working with difficult people this year, I learned how underrated niceness is. I spend every day handling many big personalities and big egos. The directness of these people who are used to getting their way was hard to handle at first but the harshness makes me appreciate all the love heaped on me by friends and family. I realize I am extremely lucky and I try to be nice to every single person I interact with.

Sailing around Toronto Harbour

Sailing around Toronto Harbour

Sicilian countryside in May

Sicilian countryside in May

2017 also brought new faces to my life and I experienced some of the most heart-breaking stories; and made some phenomenal memories. I got back into recreational sailing and made a journey on a small dinghy this summer around the Toronto Island. I tubed down a river in Vang Vieng, Laos, and almost met an unfortunate end, if not for someone who came back to stay with me (I’m not ready to tell this story yet, but one day I will be). I met some people who told me some heart-wrenching stories about their pasts and how they were trying to change their lives and move on beyond what life had dealt them. It amazed me how they were able to be so strong and turn so much bitterness into vulnerability and kindness. Life is not always easy, but we struggle and hope and pull through most of the time.

A new situation I encountered in Vang Vieng, Laos, - roosters in my dining area.

A new situation I encountered in Vang Vieng, Laos, - roosters in my dining area.

I like that 2018 is a new start. A new year to prioritize goals, spend time with people I enjoy, and to explore new passions. A new year full of travel, learning and creating. 

Erice, Sicily, 2017

Erice, Sicily, 2017

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Canada150: Ten Best National Parks to Photograph, published in Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine by Jessica Lee

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I'm really excited that my first cover feature is for Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine. You can buy this magazine in most bookstores, grocery stores and convenience stores around Canada. For this article, I researched the best national parks to go photograph in Canada this summer, just in time for Canada150, when access to all national parks are free. I learned a lot about how beautiful our vast land is, where to go if you want to photograph a specific animal/northern lights/landscape and a few tidbits of knowledge on outdoor survival skills. Here's a preview.

Toronto Engagement session with Jess and Matt by Jessica Lee

Toronto-engagement

I recently photographed a young couple close to my heart. Jess has been my best friend since we were five years old. We played with dolls when we were young and always re-enacted wedding ceremonies with them. When I got a call one night with her excitedly telling me she was now engaged to her long-time boyfriend Matt, I was ecstatic with joy - the moment had come. We quickly organized a photo shoot.

Jess and Matt asked for a vintage look to their photos, so we decided to shoot in the Distillery District of Toronto which has an old-world feel to it with its cobblestone floor and heritage buildings. We also wanted to catch one of the last summer sunsets of the year so we drove to nearby Cherry Beach for a second round of shooting. The couple wasn't camera-shy at all and what you see in the photos is the real emotion of being in love coming through.

I am so happy to be a part of this couple's life and honoured that they asked me to do their engagement photos and to be their maid of honour. I'm looking forward to the wedding in 2016!

Gear: Canon 5D Mark III, 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens.

Camping and climbing in Val David, Quebec by Jessica Lee


I have a feeling this summer's going to rock. On the Canada day weekend, the six of us, packed into a van and drove up to Val David, Quebec, an hour's drive away from Montreal. We kicked off the start of my new life in Montreal with an epic camping and climbing trip.


The camping wasn't too extreme, but it allowed us to fiddle with our tents and fire strikers.



We eventually used a lighter to get the fire started (but you're not supposed to know about that!).

After a night of roasting wieners and marshmallows, we woke up the next day and proceeded to climb.



We headed for a hike afterwards. Here is a photo of the boys looking lost.


And here is the breath-taking view of the top of Val David. We must have sat there for hours.



Afterwards, we grabbed some iced snacks. You will never guess what the dessert below is made out of. Okay, I will tell you, below we have tofu ice cream infused with blueberries and raspberries.


It tasted alright.

We did it all again the next day, then drove off to Montreal for some breakfast. In between all that, we found time to gaze up at the stars until early morning, swim in a gorgeous blue lake and watch dogs shake off water from their fur from a beach.


I would do it all again in a second.




Off road: A misadventure by Jessica Lee


There's an interesting story behind this photo.

There always is.

Why am I ankle-deep in mud, holding a jug of milk and a folding chair?

While driving, we were looking for a beach to set up and eat lunch at. According to Google Maps, the place where I was standing was supposed to be a "beach".

Not all beaches are equal in Australia, apparently.

This is what we got when we drove up:


Appetizing...

And this is what I got when I didn't realize how deep the mud really was:


I was trying to get across the river so we could set up to eat somewhere nicer without the pungent smell of whatever was rotting in the mud/clay. You know that quote "the grass is greener on the other side"?In this case I never got to see what was on the other side of the river as the guys called me back. They decided to set up on a little unimpressive stretch of sand a few meters from the car. ...clearly they're not into the whole "exploring" thing like I am.


Oh well, to each their own. Maybe they were just hungry and wanted to eat.

Romantic scenes between Geelong and Lorne by Jessica Lee


The Great Ocean Road is filled with picturesque places all along the coast. Driving by, I thought this would be the perfect location to shoot movies with dramatic or romantic scenes.

We stopped off at Geelong first, a little port town and had a simple pasta lunch with wine while facing the lake.



Then we walked along and explored.


There's a small amusement park by the dock inside the visitor's centre, which looked like fun. I can only imagine all the fun nights that were had as the sun was setting and the townspeople were meeting.


You can never look at enough shorelines. This was in Lorne, which is another seaside town a few miles further.


We arrived during "magic hour" and I got a few nice shots.


Check out that cool highway over the water.


Our van parked near the shore.


This beach, a little further down, I imagine would have made a lovely picnic spot.


The people of Australia sure are lucky folks.





Tour of Sydney harbour by Jessica Lee


It was sailing that originally drew me to Sydney, so before I left I went sailing one last time.

This time it was to the Harbour Bridge.

I arrived at Woollahra Sailing Club in Rose Bay in the afternoon and we began rigging the boat.

Here is a photo I took of the club. It is a scene I won't see again for a while in real life, which makes me sad.


This is the beach:


And the dock:


I love the feeling of being in a small boat over water. I like the feeling of the wind, balancing on the edge of the boat and hearing the waves gently lapping over the side of the boat.

It was lovely casual sailing weather; sunny, light wind and not too many waves.


Generally, you're not supposed to take electronics on small dinghies because you might capsize and lose everything, but I knew the view would be gorgeous and I wanted to capture it all. I don't mind taking reasonable risks for big rewards. The photos turned out lovely.

We spent a couple of hours on the water, passed by a military base, saw the Opera House and the bridge, saw a huge cruise ship, then headed back just as the sun was setting. There was a streak of pink in the sky which I thought was quite lovely.


Anyway, I hope you enjoy the photos!