He’s shot on the red carpet at the BET awards, backstage at concerts, in VIP sections at Hollywood nightclubs, and in personal photo shoots for celebrities like reality star Erica Mena and R&B singer Keke Wyatt. His work has brought him face to face with superstars like Cardi B and SZA and has been featured in fine art shows.
At 26, Dominque Ross has already built an impressive portfolio as a professional photographer — and he’s just getting started.
Ross, who grew up in foster care in South L.A., said he’s been into photography since “the Myspace days” as he puts it, snapping pictures of family and friends on an inexpensive Polaroid his family gifted him one Christmas. But Ross didn’t start pursuing the craft seriously until he was 21, struggling to figure out his future.
“I was unsure of what to do in college,” Ross said. “I was just never good at math and English and that [stuff], so I was just taking college classes because it was a thing to do.”
He thought back to his old hobby, and decided to try and make a life out of it.
Ross dove into the career path in an unusual way, using the foster care system as a launch pad. After emancipating from the system at 18, Ross entered a transitional housing program run by a nonprofit organization. The experience was terrible — he was robbed while living at the apartments, and felt ostracized by non-foster neighbors who learned about his situation.
“They kind of gave me a hard time because they knew I was paying subsidized housing versus them paying real rent,” Ross said. “So anything I did, like play my music, they’re like, ‘you’re doing too much.’ It was horrible.”
But the experience did have one silver lining. Under the terms of the nonprofit housing program, the “rent” Ross was paying to the program went into a savings account he was able to collect when he moved out after a year. This left him with a stash of about $900. He went straight to the store to buy his first real camera.
Ross had never taken a photography class or seriously studied the art, but he was eager to get his feet wet. He started telling everyone he knew that he’d bought a camera and was interested in trying it out, and it paid off.
A public relations professional Ross knew from his job working as an office assistant at Ed Vincent Park in Inglewood set him up to photograph an album release party for R&B singer Keke Wyatt. With that first taste of behind-the-scenes glamour, he was hooked.
“I realized I could do the media part of it as far as red carpet,” Ross said. “It was dope, it was really dope.”
Without a mentor helping him navigate the photography field, Ross has had to figure out on his own how to grow professionally and find the next step to enhance his career prospects.
He quickly realized he needed to build up his portfolio, so Ross started reaching out to aspiring models on Instagram to set up collaborative photo shoots. He’d take the photographs for free, but having them post his shots on their pages with hundreds of thousands of followers would get eyes on his work.
Ross also learned ways to access red carpet events, and leverage his photos of celebrities to develop his reputation. He applies each year for media access to the BET and MTV awards, and reaches out to artists’ publicists so that he can take pictures at their concerts.
Once he’s got his photos, Ross rushes home to edit and publish them, tagging the artists and the venues, hoping for a repost. He sends them out to MTV and to the publicists and offers them the rights to post as well.
“You have to have many different approaches,” Ross said. “Don’t even just go for one approach, do three approaches.”
As glamorous as it may seem, Ross does much of his work on a volunteer basis. He’s not paid to go to the red carpet events or concerts, so he has to hustle to make the work pay off for him in the form of exposure and new connections to possible clients. Whatever event he’s shooting, Ross is always looking for new people to give his business card to.
“When I started, I learned first thing you’ve got to open your mouth — closed mouths don’t get fed,” he said. Ross admitted that, especially as an LGBTQ man, putting himself out there to network was really intimidating at first.
Doing so much unpaid work to build his name in the field also means Ross has to work day jobs to pay the bills. Through building his business, Ross has continued to work in customer service positions. These days, he works at an ice cream shop in Venice, and he’s just starting a seasonal gig as an usher at the Ford Theatre in Hollywood. He also works with a temp agency to pick up additional hours when he can fit them in. Sometimes it means making hard decisions, like choosing to go in for a scheduled shift over taking a photography job.
As a self-managed artist and budding entrepreneur, Ross’s growth and career trajectory depends entirely on his own ability to find drive from within and maintain it without getting discouraged or giving up. He never got much guidance on how to develop these entrepreneurial skills; he said he’s learned by listening to feedback from clients and making Google his best friend. He’s always been the type to find answers on his own, but Ross does wish that he’d had a mentor or someone along the way to help him figure out his path when he was struggling to choose a career to pursue.
He said surrounding himself with family is a big part of what keeps him motivated. After entering the foster care system at birth, Ross was raised by his aunt, who spent 40 years working as a claims adjuster for the same company. He said she instilled strong work ethic and professionalism in him. Though Ross wasn’t able to live with his mom growing up, the two have managed to maintain a relationship.
These days, he’s taking a bit of a step back from the red carpet and celebrity events to focus on some personal goals he sees as important stepping stones to his continued professional growth. He’s working on getting his driver’s license and a car so transportation issues stop holding him back from growing his business. He’s also back in school learning to improve his craft, pursuing an associate’s degree in photography at Santa Monica College.
Everything Ross does is pointed at his ultimate aim of making photography his full-time career. Eventually he’d like to travel the world with it, making a name for himself with images on magazine covers and billboards. With some success under his belt already, he’s confident that he’s taking the right steps to get there.
“My first time working with BET, I was backstage with celebrities and I was like, how am I back here? I’m a kid from South Central L.A., former foster youth — that doesn’t determine why you should be there, right, but just statistically …” Ross said, trailing off. “It’s in my own mind though. I know I’m supposed to be there. Everything I have, I deserve.”
The Hustle is a series from The Chronicle of Social Change that highlights stories about current and former foster youth in the workforce. This summer, we will be sharing stories about young people finding their way in today’s economy, pursuing their passions and getting a leg up in a diverse range of jobs, careers and new endeavors. Stay tuned for the next installment and let us know what you think!