I thought I knew Wyn Wiley. But after we sat down earlier this September, it was clear that there's more to him than cats and amazing pictures. In my rawest interview yet, we get a glimpse of what he's learned in pursuit of passion, and what he struggles with. Disclaimer: There is moderate cursing in this interview so be careful if you happen to read this out loud to young ears. Enjoy!
Cam: I’m fascinated by people who do what you do—who make a living doing what they love. I know from your TED talk that it started your sophomore year of high school when one day you picked up your dad’s camera. What happened next?
Wyn: When I picked up a camera, I was at a time where I really needed to be good at something. In high school it feels damn good to stand out and be good at something. I didn’t have that thing. I was involved in music—and was talented at it—but it wasn’t something that made me stand out because all my friends were really talented at music too. So I was really looking for a passion to latch onto.
Photography literally changed me as a person, because it taught me that life is not about being better than everyone else, it’s not about making the best photographs ever. But when I started out, that’s what I wanted. I would see epic photographers and think to myself “I want that.” Throughout the process I learned that it’s the complete reverse.
During high school I did photography for the fame and notoriety—it was fun and made good money on the side. But starting in college, when it started growing and warping into this crazy thing, in the back of my mind it was really teaching me how to be a good person. It taught me how to interact with people, how to get at people, how to be a good human. I realized I can do nothing in my life other than make everyone else’s lives around me as good as I can, because I am this little, tiny, speck on the world.
I think a lot of people are in love with the idea of doing something they love, but they’re not in love with the action of it. You’ve got to be in love with the action of it. I did an entire shoot this morning before I came here [it’s 8:35AM]. It’s my life. And I love it. If I hadn’t gotten up for life today, I wouldn’t have been able to take this photo:
Loving what you do is this: This girl had her session last Thursday but towards the end of the session we ran out of light. We had a whole outfit to do and the sun was gone. I just had to realize that, if I were in her shoes, I would be like “shit.” To me, it seemed like just one outfit, but to her that’s like everything. And me caring about that will make her so much more thankful for those photos. I’m telling you this story because when you’re passionate about something that just comes as second nature.
So when you found your creative medium—something that was aligned with who you are and what you’re passionate about—it taught you how to be good to people, and how to give people your all. Is it fair to say it taught you how to be a leader?
Totally. Totally. Photography is a tool that I put into my hands that let me live more life. It also let me be the leader of my own life, which is a big thing. I just remember having this moment sitting in CBA taking an ACE class my freshman year and being like “Honestly, this place is a fucking hellhole. They’re producing nothing but another stamp of a human to go out into the world and live this basic life.” And I know that sounds really harsh to say, especially because I have so many friends who are so happy with living that life, but it’s not the life for me. There is way more life out there. What can you do more that makes you feel fully alive?
I've found that when people take the first step towards doing what they love, that they have no idea whether it will pan out in their favor. At the beginning of your journey, did you know it was going to take you where it did?
I think I knew wholeheartedly that I was the only person that could forge success in my own life—it was all on me. If you look at the most successful people and companies, it’s not that their idea is this crazy new thing. It’s the right twists, and their steadfast belief that it will be successful. If you listen to the creator of Instagram talking about the company early on he was told, “Photo sharing has been done before. No one’s gonna invest in it, you can’t make a profit.” But it was his steadfast belief that if he did it right, with the right twists, it could be a thing.
When I started out doing photography, every single person told me that I was just gonna be another photographer, that I was just gonna take some seniors and fizzle out. But I knew that I could be damn fucking good at this. And I knew that if I don’t believe in myself 1000% no one else is going to believe in me. So it’s like this drug I pump into my system that seriously just keeps shit going. I knew there was no other way for me to succeed and be damn good at whatever I’m doing.
What do you think kids our age need to hear, but don’t?
Love that question! Love it. I’m a really blunt person, but “Just give it a fucking try!” You are not going to have cheerleaders in your life. You have to become your own personal cheerleader. Also, “Now is the time to fuck up.” And Nebraska is the perfect place to fuck up—Nebraska is forgiving. The world on the coasts is not forgiving. You fuck up on the coasts and you don’t have a place to live. So what if you try something and it doesn’t work—that’s gonna act like a magnet in your life and send you off in another direction even if you don’t touch it.
I also just wrote about this in a blog post last week: “I want to tell you guys about a conversation I had this week with a friend. We got on the subject of starting a business and a bit into the conversation he said- ‘well everyone is already doing everything' and for the most part that’s true. And for lots that’s the HUGE mental wall that stands in their way of starting a business or putting their passion or art or big idea OUT THERE. But I think this is exactly the reason TO start something. Because the catch is, it’s all about your twist. In your life have the chance to do something but in a way that no one has before. When I started my photography business many people, in fact most of my closest friends 1) didn’t fully believe in me and 2) thought, ‘here comes another photographer’ & I’m just going to be honest here and say I hope I’ve proved them damn wrong. My life is the way it is now because I decided to take a chance on following my passion and say hell no to anything but living out my passion. Lemme break it down another way—there are a whole lot of burgers out there in this world but there are not a whole lot of in-n-out burgers. Be that in-n-out burger.
It would be my biggest dream come true to see each and every one of my friends follow their passion, throw a normal life out the window, live by their gut and run like hell with their idea to change it all up. There’s so much passion and accomplishment and self worth hidden in your work if you align it with that heart of yours So I challenge you to take that little seed of an idea and give it some water every now and then.” It doesn’t have to be a switch that you turn on and off in your life, but just take steps to make progress.
You said you’re an open book, so in either your personal or business life, what do you struggle with the most?
Wow, these things sound so basic, but balance—I really struggle with what’s work life, what’s personal life. I love that my business life is so intertwined with my personal life, but I feel like I’m “on” all the time. That’s life. That’s what happens when you’re an entrepreneur.
I love Nebraska, so much. Genuinely, it’s so fucking rad. There are so many things I take for granted but there is no gay community in Lincoln or Omaha. And people say there is, but it’s a joke. This summer I went to Seattle and marched with 2 million other people for gay pride—What! Lincoln’s gay community has maybe 200 people. Which is fine. And I know that if I stick with doing my passion, I know I’ll meet someone.
I struggle with the idea that people think they know me, but they really have no idea who I am. There was this moment at the Sara Barellis concert this summer where I was walking down the aisle, three different groups of people said amongst themselves “OH my gosh that’s Wyn! That’s Wyn!” And that’s weird. I really just want to take photos and live the life. And of course I wonder what people say about me—which is a normal human thing—but I think that sometimes people misunderstand me.
I used to struggle huge with self/body image. Like my senior year of high school I weighed like 250 pounds. So college has been a time where I have to keep my personal health in check and just be like “Yo, Wyn you got one life to do this.” And maybe I’m like mildly obsessed with working out, but it’s my release, where I can’t do anything else but physical activity and I really enjoy it.