"A Gallon a Day" Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Everyone strives to find comfort in the lives they have made for themselves, regardless of the circumstances that they were born into. This could mean overcoming obstacles such as poverty, self-doubt, education, and even something as simple as their ethnicity. These circumstances have always been around, but in the current political climate, they seem to have been amplified. How does one, especially a minority, find their comfort through all the pressures of life?
Having gone through life as someone who has never had it “easy”, working for everything I have has become second nature. With this body of work, I wanted to visually represent what it feels like to be a black man living through the current political climate, alongside both internal and external issues. All while trying to reach his own definition of success and keeping his composure.
I Can, I Will, I Must (A Gallon a Day)
To really understand my place in the history of photography it must first begin with who I am as a person, the life I’ve lived and the experiences I’ve had.
As a child I knew I was different than most other members of my family and even now I ask myself if it was normal for a child to be so socially and financially aware of their family dynamic. Maybe I was a little too aware . . . but don’t get me wrong . . . things weren’t all bad. If I had to place my family on a financial ranking, I think we’d be somewhere right above the poverty line.
Being the middle child of three siblings, I knew how hard my mother worked to support us on her own and so I tried my hardest to avoid giving her any grief while growing up. I wasn’t interested in sports and only played outside to the smallest degree. The majority of the time I was inside playing video games or watching American & Japanese anime cartoons. This was partially because I didn’t want to get involved with too many costly activities. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my time alone. It was important for me. I could finally be with my thoughts and let my imagination run wild. It was also something that I believe helped shape me into the independent person that I am today.
Being a solitary person wasn’t always easy, especially in the intense high school social setting where I was referred to as “weird.” I didn’t like conforming to groups and was interested in things most other people didn’t understand or thought was uncool.
There was a huge shift during my junior year of high school. I was 16. I could finally get a job of my own, I could start making my own money, and I could help ease the financial “burden” that I thought I was for my mother. Although it wasn’t much, the money I earned went to clothes and other things I would normally have to ask my mother for. On top of that I would also buy and groceries for the house whenever I could.
A major part of the shift that took place in my life was also my introduction to photography and the software Photoshop. At the of age 16 most people don’t usually know what they want to do for a living, but when I first touched a camera I knew at that moment I would be a photographer and nothing else mattered at that point. I began shooting nonstop with a friend of mine, Kevin Codio. We would try doing image manipulation and compositing, beginning to explore the concept of surrealism. Some of my first images were a bit ridiculous, these included images of myself riding on the wing of a plane while it was airborne, sitting next to a lion surrounded by mountains in a made up land, and even watching an explosion happen while on a train.
Looking back, as I’m sure every artist can relate to, I’m not always very proud of my past work. Even now I cringe a bit whenever I see one of my old images, but I can also appreciate what they did for me at the time. Not only was it practice for the work I’m making now, it was also a form of therapy that helped me to self soothe. Photography allowed me to create alternate realities that I could go to for brief moments to escape the reality I was in, because soon or a later life hits, and it hits hard.
I did well enough in high school to be given a partial scholarship to Indiana University of Pennsylvania. IUP is a mid-sized liberal arts university about 5 hours away from Philly that has some of the most bizarre weather you could imagine. Here I thought I would make my family proud. I am the second person in my entire family to attend college. I wanted to cultivate my skills in photography and become a much better photographer than I currently was but unfortunately, I lost my mind during my first year at college. Some people may think college is that time in a young person’s life where they get to party and get all the excitement out of their system before entering the work force after graduating. Well for me, that was an understatement. It was the first time I was out living on my own with no parental guidance and it completely got to me. I was partying, underage drinking, and chasing girls more than I was focused on my schoolwork. Not to mention I was already unprepared for the challenges that came with college, I didn’t know how to properly study, and although I had a partial scholarship, money was extremely tight.
As a result of my actions I lost my scholarship and ultimately my opportunity to attend college. I felt as though I was living up to stereotypes often associated with black men not being smart or having the ability to attend college but most of all I felt like I was letting my mother down.
Now at one of the lowest points of my life with about three dollars to my name, I withdrew from IUP and moved back in with my mother. I decided I needed to take a break from trying to attend college and to really reevaluate my life. The only choice I had at this point was to get a job until I figured things out. I knew I still wanted to be a photographer but I wasn’t shooting as much as I was before college and everything I was shooting was only to make some extra cash. I abandoned image manipulation, compositing, and surrealism all together. At this point I was just a guy with a camera working a regular job and accepting any photo gig that came my way. But deep down I knew I was meant for so much more.
I’ve worked at places like Urban Outfitters, HHGreg, LA Fitness (for about 3 days), Polo Ralph Lauren, and even Wawa. I think I never stayed at one place for too long because subconsciously I knew that if I became too comfortable I would give up my dreams of becoming a successful photographer as well as finishing college and become stuck in the cycle of living from check to check that so many people in my family have fell victim too. I knew that wasn’t for me.
With very limited options, I felt as though I was backed into a corner. I didn’t want to continue working “regular” jobs and I knew one of my end goals was to graduate college with a BFA in photography, so I decided to do what most individuals do when they don’t have many options but want to do something of significance, I decided to join the Air Force.
This may sound like a simple task and for some it definitely is: a quick signature and an oath of enlistment and boom you’re the governments property. However, for me it was another obstacle I had to overcome. My next step was to meet with a recruiter and of course I drew the short end of the stick. The first person I happened to see was a rude gentleman who didn’t even take the necessary steps to see if I pre-qualified to join the Air Force. When we met he immediately told me I was unable to join because of the tattoo I had on my forearm. He told me that my tattoo was too big for the exposed skin, which I later found out was a lie and he just didn’t want to bother with me. After this upset, I started to contemplate joining one of the other branches of the military but friends and family all told me that I should continue to stick with the Air Force. This is when my friend Jessica, whom I met while attending IUP, informed me that her recruiter would be willing to take a look at me, and well enough he came through. After taking my Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test I was pressing onto the next step in the process.
Before one can enter the military you must first go through a Military Entrance Processing Station, aka MEPS, and I can assure you it’s no walk in the park. It’s a tediously long day where you’re subjected to questions about your past, drug tests, long periods of waiting, physical examinations of every sort, to include my favorite, the dropping of ones under garments while an old white guy grabs your junk and asks you to cough a few times, and of course more waiting. Unfortunately for me I raised a red flag when it was discovered that I am allergic to cashews. This is an automatic disqualification because they avoid accepting individuals who can go into anaphylactic shock. After hearing this outcome the look on my face said it all, I was disappointed, crushed, and felt as though my last lifeline had been cut.
Luckily, my recruiter informed me that there was still a chance that I could enlist by way of a medical waiver. To make this happen I had to pay a visit to my doctors office for them to run an allergy test as evidence that my allergic reactions were not severe. Then the waiting game begun, medical waivers are not guaranteed and could take anywhere up to a year to be approved or denied. Months passed and I was feeling discouraged until finally 3 months later I received a call from my recruiter letting me know that my medical waiver had been approved. Things began to look as though they were going in my favor and before you knew it I was on my way to San Antonio, Texas to begin my military career in the Air Force.
Fast-forward to about a year later, my military training was complete and my outlook on life was completely different. I now had the discipline I was lacking before and my drive and motivation was at an all time high. At this point I decided it was time to get serious with my photography and schooling once again and enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) for their digital imaging program. It was here that my love for the medium was reignited. I was able to work in the darkroom for the first time, had access to a studio and equipment, sharpened my skills with Photoshop, and most important I was surrounded by professors with real life experience in the field. I learned a great deal about photography while at CCP but unfortunately I was unable to obtain my associates degree in the program because during my last semester one of the classes I needed was canceled because of low enrollment. Therefore, rather than waiting another semester to take one class I thought it would be best to transfer to Tyler School of Art at Temple University to get my bachelors degree.
Yet again, God and the military had other plans for me. This time around I was getting deployed to the Middle East, Abu Dhabi, UAE, to be exact. This resulted in a few months of training that led to over 7 months of living in a tent in the desert. When I tell you it was hot all the time, IT WAS HOT ALL THE TIME! The days went up to 130 degrees with 100 percent humidity and when night came it didn’t get any better. One could take a shower and immediately start sweating again, that is, if the showers even worked. There were times when our generators would lose power which meant no electricity, therefore no air conditioning. The conditions were rough at times but they were bearable.
My mental state however, was another story. I was having a rough time. As much as I like to be alone the solitude I was facing while overseas was much more than I was used to. There was a pretty good gym where I was, which is usually my biggest stress reliever, but it wasn’t enough. This may have been the first time I found myself becoming depressed. I couldn’t speak to people back home too often because of the time difference and I found no reason to communicate with my colleagues in the Air Force because most of them drank way too much for my taste. I was alone majority of the time and it didn’t help that I couldn’t practice my photography. How cruel was it that when I finally started taking photography seriously again I was put into a situation where I couldn’t focus on it? So again, I lost touch with the medium, living vicariously through other photographers I found online. I couldn’t wait to get back home and after almost a year, that time had come.
Returning home after almost a year, I found that a lot had changed. The photography community in Philly had blown up. I assumed this was because the popularity of Instagram was picking up and to be honest I loved it. The eternal flame I have for photography was once again set ablaze and I didn’t hesitate to meet up with other photographers, work on my own conceptual/surreal images, and of course to get my ass back into college. Although, I had to put that on hold for just a bit longer because I came back home when the semester was already underway so I applied to Temple for the following semester. In the mean time I began building up my brand and presence on social media as Aaron Ricketts. Being quite versatile with the medium and with my skills in Photoshop I was quickly gaining attention within the city. My unique aesthetic implemented with hints of surrealism was setting me apart from other photographers in the city but I didn’t let that go to my head and always kept it about the image making.
At this point, everything was going great and it finally felt as though my life was going in the right direction. I had money in the bank, just got a new car, and moved out of my mother’s house. I was budding into an amazing photographer. However, I knew I couldn’t depend on the money I made from the Air Force while deployed forever so it was crucial that I learned the business side of photography. No matter how good you are at something, it means nothing if you don’t know the business.
My quest for knowledge had begun, I started seeking mentors, reading books, and doing all things I once never gave a thought about. I Eventually I got word that K-Swiss was holding a call for 100 creative individuals for a program called “The Board”. It was like a think-tank and mentorship combined. We were able to get valuable information from industry professionals and take part in tasks that tested our creative abilities. Each task had an incentive you could win, ranging from, getting our own shoe design made and sold in stores, taking over the K-Swiss Instagram, and even K-Swiss investing in an idea of ours. I won the task involving marketing and social media then had the opportunity to take over their Instagram for a week. Little did I know this would end with K-Swiss becoming my first big client. K-Swiss liked my work so much they decided to get me involved with a project for two sneakers they were releasing. The project was unpaid, but I seen it as a way to get my foot in the door with them. With the completion of that project I was then chosen to shoot their new collection at the Racket Club of Philadelphia. This time I was getting paid! I was ecstatic; I finally obtained my first big client, with others to follow soon after. Next thing I know I was getting contacted by the clothing brand Theory, Karmaloop, and after some great networking, added Visit Philadelphia to my list of clients!
I was truly at a highpoint in my life and you could see it through my work. I thought it couldn’t get any better but sure enough it did. While trying to get the attention of Adidas’s Vice President of Global Entertainment and Influencer Marketing, Jon Wexler, my failed attempt caught the eye of Brandon Edler, Finish Line’s Content Manager & Creative Strategist. At the same time, I can’t even remember how it happened; True Religion also contacted me. If I had told my younger self that I’d be working with both Finish Line and True Religion, I would have thought it was a lie. But it was happening and no one could tell me anything!
I’m 24 now and simultaneously serving in the Air Force, attending Tyler as a full time student, and working for myself. I’m making really good money and traveling more in one year than I ever have in my entire life. I freaked out a little when I flew first class for the first time and that was equally met with side eyes from some of the older white passengers you typically see up front before moving to the back of the plane.
Nonetheless, I am finally somewhere I never thought I’d be despite everything I’ve been through. However, with everything came a very strict routine and schedule. This meant not seeing or speaking to my friends or family as often, being really decisive about my choices, and staying focused on my goals I worked so hard to obtain. On the surface I told myself the only thing that mattered was success but deep down I was saddened by the thought of having to give up family, friends, and relationships while striving to succeed. I was so conflicted and for the first time ever I finally knew what the saying, “Its lonely at the top”, meant. Despite working with and meeting lots of new people I was feeling extremely lonely. I didn’t want to lose touch and I didn’t want to feel like I was pushing people out of my life but with everything that was going on it was something I couldn’t help.
You would have thought I mentally snapped at this point because of all the issues I was dealing with on top of all the social issues taking place in the world but some how I was keeping my composure. I don’t speak to my father very often but I recall one time we spoke; he gave me one of the biggest pieces of advice I’d ever received. It was something so simple but something I definitely needed to hear. His words were, “You have a goal, you have no reason to put yourself second to anyone”. This meant a lot to me because I was so concentrated with trying to please everyone in my life, along with my work; I was losing focus all together. I’m thankful for the words given to me by my father and I’m also thankful for my mother who understands the position that I’m in and continuously supports me despite the fact there are times when I don’t speak to her for a week or so.
I feel as though there’s so much more I can say but honestly, I can’t think of it right now. To end, I would like to leave whoever is reading this with my final words and thoughts. I’m currently 25 years old and my client list includes notable brands. Within the coming month I’ll be graduating from college after almost 8 years and my enlistment in the Air Force will be coming to an end. Excited I may be, I am also equally nervous. I’ve been doing things on my own for a while but I’m currently losing all of my safety nets and will only have myself to count on financially. I recently leased my own live in studio that I won’t be able to afford if things don’t go my way. I’m anxious, scared, and sometimes I feel like I’m being overwhelmed.
Regardless, I press on, not only because I have to, but because I got myself out of some pretty shitty situations, therefore I know I am not where I am by mistake. I don’t know what the next few years of my life have in store for me but I know the future is bright.
I can. I will. I must.