This starving college grad cold-pitched Time Magazine & now works with Oprah, Wall Street Journal, Politico & more

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CJ Burton is a photographer and illustrator who went from being a starving artists just out of college to now working with companies like Oprah, the Wall Street Journal, Politico, and many more.

He has been around photography his whole life. His dad owned a photography business but CJ never aspired to fill his dad’s role when he eventually had a career.

But he found himself as a hobbyist with a small portfolio in high school where one of his teachers told him “you know, you could make a living as a commercial photographer.”

That was something CJ had never heard of—much less considered.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.


Note: today’s post is all about episode 5 of our new podcast, Freelance to Founder. For more detail and the complete story, you can listen to CJ’s episode below (or on iTunes or Pocket Casts.)


So his teacher sent him to Art Center to look at the gallery what was on display. As he visited, he knew inside of him that this is what he needed to pursue.

Later, as a student at Art Center, he had a breakthrough realization: just like people who make movies create storyboard sketches of their scripts, he could sketch out photographic concepts long before he invested the money it takes to create a stunning piece of photo-illustration.

“I know what I’m going for and I shoot and I shoot and I shoot with the model or the sets or whatever it is I’m working on until I see on the screen what I have already seen in my head and once I get to that point, I’m ready to move on.”

And the most common question CJ gets now?

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“How did you do that?”

Because CJ Burton isn’t your average photographer: he uses photography to create elaborate photo-illustrations that have been featured on the cover of some of the most renowned publications in the world.

Uphill for @consumerreports

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Bring it on! (with a bang)

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But he didn’t start out that way.

So how did he go from being a no-name college graduate to being highly requested by some of the world’s top brands?

He pitched himself, first, to Time Magazine.

Here’s how he explains it:

“‘Hey, I’m an L.A. based photographer, I happen to be in New York and I’d love for you to see my book…’

But in reality, I’m like ‘Hey, I’m just out of school, I’m afraid my wife and I are starving and would you please please please let me in your office?’ That’s what I was really saying.

And of course, the minute I walked in, she saw through the whole established photographer facade.”

Listen to how that story—and the rest of CJs story as a photographer—turns out in this week’s episode of our first-ever podcast, Freelance to Founder.

You can listen to the full episode below:

You can also listen to the entire first season of Freelance to Founder on our website, in iTunes, or through Pocket Casts.

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.

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  1. This was a really interesting and inspiring podcast!
    Great photos – illustrations!